Interview with Baikida Carroll
by Frank Tafuri

Baikida Carroll

Tafuri: It's been awhile since you made your last record as a leader.

Carroll: Yeah —I did a co-op thing, New York Collective, a couple years ago.  Everyone directed their own composition within it.  Mike Nock, and [Michael] Formanek, Frank Lacy, Pheeroan AkLaff, and Marty Ehrlich.  I had a request after my last CD to do another, but as you know it kept getting back-burnered.  Never happened.

Tafuri: You've stayed busy over the years creating music for Broadway?

Carroll: Well, not for Broadway.  I mean, I've done a couple of Broadway things.  I write arrangements for my friends —I'm doing one for Oliver [Lake] right now.  I'm always writing ensemble pieces for myself —that's mostly what I'm doing —but I also do film.  I've done several industrial films; I've done PBS American Playhouse programs.  I've done stuff with dancers, Diane McIntyre, and different choreographers.  I also do theater —mostly regional theater.  I used to do a couple of those a year.  At one point I was doing a lot of different places —San Jose; Asolo, Florida.

But [then] I got really associated with Emily Mann.  She'd call me when she did her own productions, authored her own pieces.  We built quite a rapport together at the McCarter Theater in Princeton.  We've done quite a few —this is the first year I haven't done a theater piece in twenty years, probably.  We came up with some nice concepts —usually in regional theater, they don't have a lot of money, so they don't hire composers per se —after doing a couple of productions, we created a formula, a way of working together, that was very creative for me.  It wasn't just underscoring, it was really an integral part of the production itself.  So I was able to actually explore my own musical ideas, what I was working on at the time, through those productions.  What I like about it most is that it inspires me.  It works with my playing and my writing for improvisational music, which is ninety percent of what I do.  I've been doing it for so many years, but I like it.  It really inspires me, because once I have to do something like that, I have to do the research. 

Like we did King Lear, for example, at Asolo Theater, a huge production, and I had to do all this research on Celtic music.  Out of that, you don't know directly where it's going, or how you'll utilize it, but in doing it I find myself really indulged, involved, completely submerged in this other world.  And when I come out of it, I've usually gained a lot.  I don't know how it's gonna be implemented in my playing, but it usually does come out. That's one of the beauties of it for me —it inspires me to go on, to keep creating instead of just settling.

Tafuri: It seems to me that for a creative artist, one of the most challenging things is to find that continuing source of inspiration.

Carroll: Exactly.  Especially for composition. I can't get locked into a style —there may be one after years of doing it, but I don't know exactly what it is.  I can't fall back on a formula.

Tafuri: Well, it's hard for anybody to characterize what's intrinsic to them, what they know so well.  It's hard to articulate, because it's so much a part of us.

Carroll: The thing about it that I really dig, about writing for other genres, is that it makes me pull from another source.  When I go back to write my playing compositions, my improvising compositions, it's like I write them from a more scenic or emotional source.  If I'm writing from a strictly jazz source, a lot of the time the impetus is from a sequence or phrase I've discovered while practicing trumpet —sometimes it can be some what technical, almost academic.

Tafuri: Right.

Carroll: When I'm writing for theater, it's like I'm trying to relay a particular slice of life, or an emotion—

Tafuri: —or an event—

Carroll: —or an event.  So the source is completely different.  So when I do that in jazz writing, I'm trying to get an emotion across.  It's a whole other way of writing for me.  Or it adds to that —they work together.  A lot of times when I write for theater, I write from improvising.  I'll take my horn and play, and I'll tape it —they work together.

Tafuri: Sure. The cross-disciplinary kind of approach.

Carroll: Exactly.

Tafuri: How did you get into doing this sort of thing?

Carroll: I remember, when I was in the third grade, I was sitting in class, and the teacher —her name was Miss Gary, I'll never forget her —

Tafuri: This was in St Louis?

Carroll: Yes, in St Louis.  I was at Washington Grade School.  I was just sitting there, doing your regular grade school stuff, and she said they were going to have a play.  I didn't know what the play was about —I didn't know anything about plays.  She said "it's going to be The Wizard of Oz, and here are the people I think would be good as the characters."  She called my name, and I'll never forget that feeling. She said, "we want you to be the scarecrow."  From that point on, I was really interested in theater.

Tafuri: That's cool.

Carroll: Later, when I got out of the Service, I went back to St Louis and through Julius Hemphill I joined the Black Artist Group.

Tafuri: Which was a very multi-disciplinary group.

Carroll: Very multi-disciplinary.  In there, we had a theater department, a writing department, a visual arts department, dance, music.  I conducted the big band ensemble, the orchestra.  It basically was Oliver Lake, Julius and myself writing for the band, and so I had to learn all of Julius' and Oliver's music.  We'd also copy each other's parts.  And then we would do the theater —Julius would actually write theater pieces.  Malinke [Elliott] was the director of the theater department, and we would talk a lot; actually, my first production at the Black Artist Group, I was acting.  I was there as an actor —I played in the band also, but I was acting.  It got to the point where at the last big production, we did Larry Neal's "Poem for a Revolutionary Night," and I wrote all the music for it, the whole score.  We did it at Christ Church Cathedral, and it was our last big production.  There were poets and dancers and actors, with a play in the middle —we did a lot of that.  We produced our own performances.  Every week it would be Oliver and a dancer, maybe, or Bobo [Shaw] and an actor —whatever we would come up with.  Then I went away to live in Paris, and I got away from that.  When I came back to New York, I was doing concerts —

Tafuri: What year was this?

Carroll: 1974 or 1975.  I was working with a lot of my friends: David Murray, Howard Johnson, Charlie Haden, Julius, Oliver and all them.  They had that New Music at the Public —a whole series was happening —it was a whole bunch of us working on that, with Denzel Washington, Samuel L Jackson —

Tafuri: Really?!

Carroll: Avery Brooks, Thulani Davis, Ntozake Shange, a whole bunch of us were working out of there.  Just young, and doing stuff.  I did a concert, and [Joseph] Papp came —he liked it, and he asked, "have you written for theater?"  I said, "actually, I have."  He gave me a production, and I did that; he gave me another one, and that's how I started up again.  Out of that, people started calling me to do this production and that...

Tafuri: That's cool.  It was part of your texture, it sounds like, at a really early age.

Carroll: Yeah.  Also, I've been painting since '72 —all things work together.

Tafuri: It's funny that you talk about having to write for dramatic scenes and situations and events, and now you mention painting, because one of the things that impressed me about your music —your music has a very cinematic, a very visual component to it, I think.  For me, it really evokes pictures and situations.  I guess that's one of the things that attracts a lot of people to your music.  So much of the population is visual.

Carroll: We are in a very visual era right now.  Extremely.

Tafuri: To be able to hear something "multidisciplinarily" (if you will), coming from another direction, and be able to evoke a picture, is a pretty significant thing.  But it sounds like you don't actually try to do that when you write.

Carroll: No, I don't.  Well, if I'm doing it for theater, if it's underscore, you can't really be flamboyant —you know?  You've got to be under; you can't be heard.  So it has the essence of feeling —you don't really hear the score, you feel it.  When you're able to do that —I've done it for so long now, I think I'm getting, not necessarily good at it, but I'm learning....

Tafuri: ...adroit?

Carroll: I guess it comes out in my other writing as well, the whole idea of portraying a feeling.

Tafuri: When you put a record together, like for instance Marionettes on a High Wire, or Door of the Cage, do you put the record together with a dramatic sense or a sense of theater?  A sense that there are sort of pictures or scenes or events or characters?

Carroll: I use all the sources available to me.  Since I do that, of course it's going to come out.  But I don't specifically sit down to do that.  Like in the order of the pieces, it's all a kind of microcosm.  You know how in classical music, how you have the overall form, and it breaks down in to a microcosm, and it breaks down and breaks down...

Tafuri: Sure.

Carroll: It's kind of like that.  Once you get involved in it, you don't necessarily lose the initial place, but it develops itself out of that aesthetic.

Tafuri: Kind of takes on a life of its own.

Carroll: Exactly.  It is a definite part of it.  With a CD, I try to build within that genre, as opposed to a concert.  They are two different things, you know?  A live concert is completely different, so I don't try to emulate a live concert through the CD.  I try to deal with that particular genre —someone sitting and listening to something, as opposed to seeing something or watching the musicians.

Tafuri: Oh, that's interesting, because I think so many musicians do try and put a record together similar to the way they would a set.

Carroll: Well, that's kind of like trying make a movie be exactly like the book.  It's two different genres.  You try to get the maximum out of what you're dealing with, as opposed to bastardizing something.  I'm dealing with a CD, dealing with straight sound.  I'm not dealing with the visual, so the first thing for me is the artists that I'm dealing with.  It all comes from there.  I don't care what you write and what the project is, it's what these particular people can do emotionally, their character, and what they have to say.  Out of that, I try to write things that are going to bring out what they do best within these musical concepts.

Tafuri: Plus the fact that a live concert is a one —shot deal; a CD is something people are going to be listening to, hopefully again and again.

Carroll: In a live concert, you're dealing with not just the five of you, you're dealing with the audience.

Tafuri: That's true.

Carroll: So the dynamics are different, tune to tune it's different, slightly different considerations.

Tafuri: Sure.  And I would imagine there's that additional —beyond the improvisation in the music, there's the improvisation with the crowd....

Carroll:'ll take it somewhere else.  And the time element, as well —you can do three pieces for a whole set.  I guess you can do that on a CD, but —

Tafuri: —it never stopped Cecil.

Carroll: I have done records that are like that, but in general I try to deal with the genre that I'm dealing with, and the CD is a whole other thing.  A whole other time element, another space.  You're not playing for an audience.  It's just the five of us in a studio, so you try to get the maximum out of that particular situation.

Tafuri: Sure.  When you were talking about putting your music together, you talked about how you draw from the sensibilities —the cross-disciplinary sensibilities you gained from working in theater.  It's interesting, because on this new recording, a few of these tunes were actually written for some of those things, right?

Carroll: I was playing something for a friend yesterday, she's a violin player —I wrote this tarantella.  It's like a straight classical tarantella.  She was shocked that I would write that type of stuff, and I said, well I've got things like fifteen Swedish folk dances that I wrote.  You do that, and sometimes out of that, as you're doing it or hearing back on stage, you say, you know what?  That might translate into a nice piece to play.  I always keep that in the back of my head, and if the situation arises I'll use it.  I think on the CD, "Miss Julie," "Our Say," and "Cab" —those are from two different shows.  "Cab" and "Our Say" are from the same show.  They were things that I had in the back of my head that I'd like to play, and to expound on those subjects.

Tafuri: So you took those themes, or the ideas that were distilled down when you did the theater pieces, and then expanded them a little bit?

Carroll: Exactly. "Miss Julie" was originally a string quartet.

Tafuri: Really?

Carroll: Yeah. A straight string quartet, written for the play Miss Julie.

Tafuri: Wow. Well now I can hear it that way. It's funny —as soon as you say that, it's like wow, that would really work.

Carroll: I'll play it for you at some point.  It's a play by August Strindberg; we did it at the McCarter Theater in 1993.  You know Kim Cattrall?  She starred —her and Donna Murphy.  Donna Murphy won, I think, a Tony award for Best Actress a couple years ago.  Kim Cattrall played Miss Julie —we had all these meetings, and it was based on the way she played it —I wrote it all out of her.

Tafuri: So you actually, just like you were talking about writing for musicians on an album, you wrote for the actress?

Carroll: Exactly.  Right.  "Against Your Warmth," on the other album [Door of the Cage], is also from Miss Julie, and was written for Donna Murphy.  There's this really, really great scene where she sits there, and she realizes that her lover is in the other room with her boss.  She can't do anything about this because he's her boss.  She's sitting there, and all this is on her face —she's facing the audience, sitting at the table drinking coffee —she hears the beginning of it, she hears the ecstasy of it, she hears the end of it, she sits there.  The whole thing is done through music.  So that's how Emily and I work together —she feeds me and I feed her.  She gives me these places where I can really open up.  There was no overt physical movement in that scene —it's all done through Donna's facial expressions, subtle body language and music. I had to work with Donna and talk with her —it all came out of that.  That's where "Against Your Warmth" came from.

Tafuri: That's really cool.  "Cab" came from one of the plays as well?

Carroll: "Cab" is from Having Our Say, which was on Broadway in 1995.

Tafuri: I read the book, I didn't see the play.

Carroll: Oh yeah, it was a play.  It won quite a few awards.  It was the most-produced play in America for a couple years.  As a matter of fact, it went to South Africa, it went all over.  In the Dramatists' Guild, it was the most-requested, most—bought piece.  It was a very popular play.

Tafuri: This was one of the characters recalling having gone to see Cab Calloway?

Carroll: No, no, not at all.

Tafuri: Oh...

Carroll: There's a scene in there, where she's talking about back when they were young, back in the early thirties and the twenties, she's talking about what it was like before Jim Crow, for example. When they used to ride on the bus, the streetcar, and their hair would blow back, and it was fun.  Then one day, their mom said "You gotta go to the back of the bus."  So it's nice to actually hear what it was like before Jim Crow, because you think it was inevitable, that it had always been that way.  But there was a time when that wasn't happening.  To underscore that scene, I had to write that type of period music.  I wrote it based on players like James P Johnson and Art Tatum —that stride type of feel.  When I was working on it, I was sitting there —the TV was on in the other room, and news bulletin came on saying that Cab Calloway had died. I said, there's the title right there.  They used that piece when they were advertising on the radio —that's the underscore.  It was on the radio every five minutes.

Tafuri: Well, now I remember hearing it.

Carroll: Yeah, it has a familiarity about it —

Tafuri: —now I know —

Carroll: They wore it out on New York radio.  After hearing that, I thought "maybe I'll play around with it..."  What I like about it is —it's kind of the whole group improvisation style of New Orleans, that communal feeling.  What I wanted to do was start with a contemporary communal feeling and work back to that.  I think it worked out pretty good.

Tafuri: I love the fact that to me, in two minutes, you show the continuity of the music.  It goes from this real traditional, early jazz sound, which is amazing playing, and then as soon as you come out of the head, it's post-bop.

Carroll: And then you work your way back, one musician at a time.  And what happens, the horns are still playing post-bop, and the piano comes in playing a little post-bop, and then he goes back into the stride, the drums go back, and the next thing you know, we all somehow worked our way back.  It shows the correlation between the two; that it hasn't really changed.

Tafuri: Well, that's what's so beautiful about it.

Carroll: And it's quick —it's a little quickie.

Tafuri: It's like a little encapsulation of the history and vicissitudes of the music in two minutes.  It's a very cool little piece.

Carroll: A passage that can't be ignored.

Tafuri: Well, in a way you were paying tribute to the music in general, and a little bit I guess to the pioneers in the past.

Carroll: Well, my attitude is that I'm not a purist, you know?  What challenges me is to see what I do.  Sometimes I fall on my face, and sometimes not.  To see how I can improvise within this particular genre.  Be it Dixie, classical, funk, rock—

Tafuri: —Swedish folk songs —

Carroll: —Swedish folk songs; what do I have to say?  What will that bring out of me, as an improviser?  What does that moment depict?  I really get off on that. Sometimes it doesn't work, sometimes it does.  [Laughter]

Tafuri: What did the music of Don Cherry do for you? Don's playing, Don's persona? You have this piece on the album called "Griot's Last Dance," that you've dedicated to him.

Carroll: Cherry was a really good friend of mine.

Tafuri: Did you get to know each other here, or over in Europe?

Carroll: I think first I met him in Paris.  Nana Vasconcelos played in my band in Europe, and he and Don were good friends.  I think that's when I first met him.  Just in passing we saw each other, we'd say hey. When I came back, I played with Charlie Haden and Dewey Redman, we had a band together, and he'd come to shows and hang out.  My wife and his wife became pretty good friends; then he was working with Colin Walcott, who was a really good friend of mine —the whole family, we're pretty close. I got close with Don through Colin.  I know once, we played a duo concert in Meredith, New York.  What I remember most about it was that neither one of us was really interested in dealing with the traditional trumpet vocabulary.  We were inspired to relay the same aesthetic.  I realized, that's how he spoke, going around the world —he conversed through an unspoken aesthetic.  He used that concept to communicate and tell stories around the world.  He went from place to place, learned this music, and he was able to say what he said on a trumpet, not using the "traditional" vocabulary of the trumpet.  Which I love, I love listening to it, but I don't necessarily pursue it myself.  I love Lee Morgan and Clifford Brown, and Miles and Diz, Fats Navarrro; I studied it and I love it, but I don't pursue it. I realized that Cherry had taken it to a communal level.  He would go places and play with people, and he would just speak with his horn.  He was a griot —an Afro-American griot.  I used to practice with him, Lester Bowie, Woody Shaw —we used to practice together at Bobo's place....

Tafuri: I would have loved to be a fly on the wall there.

Carroll: Nothing formal at all.

Tafuri: Well, that's all right.  [Laughter] When you talk about Cherry, it sounds a little bit like your own story, in that you're both trying to—

Carroll: You do it in different ways, on your own path.  You take what's offered —the cards that you're dealt.  That's the path that Cherry chose, and he was so good at it.  I miss him.  Just being on the planet —not that I saw him that much or hung out with him that much.  He and Lester were just totally inspiring.

Tafuri: Well, there's this energy out there; you know when they're on the planet and when they're not.

Carroll: You really do.  Even people —I met Miles a few times, you know, through different people, and he's always kind of been a thread through my life.  My mom —they used to go and sneak in and hear him, and come back and talk about him. I used to teach his son —Gregory Davis was a trumpet student of mine.  I've known people in his bands, but I never had a direct connection with him.  But when he was gone, you could feel that he was not on the planet.  His music is still here, but there is something else. 
For me, with Cherry and Lester Bowie and Julius Hemphill, it was more than their music.  I mean, people love Julius Hemphill's music, but for me, Hemphill —we played so much music, did so much, we helped each other so much —every time Julius and I would be writing something, we'd be on the phone for hours talking about this, working through this, blah blah of our last big conversations, about a week before he passed, I was doing Having Our Say, and I was going to come down and help him cook, and help out, as soon as I put the show up.  I was in town for about a month straight, but I couldn't see him much.  We'd have dinner every now and then.  So we had this big conversation —Julius' whole thing was "if I got more than one instrument, I'm gonna harmonize."  [Laughter] "I will harmonize anything —it's redundant to have four instruments playing the same note."  I was saying, well, there is a harmony in unison, depending on how you put the instruments together.  You know —French horn and accordion and trumpet in unison is gonna create a sound that is a harmony in itself.  Sometimes, if a melody is strong, a melody can be tainted by harmony.  You put harmony in, and it takes away from it.  It's about tension and release and balance.  Understand where the strengths in that particular grouping of notes lie.  So we had this back-and-forth over what he was working on and what I was working on, and I don't have that anymore.  The closest thing that I have now, is Oliver Lake and I will kind of get into it.  Not "get into it," but have those types of discussions.  And Howard Johnson and I —I just got off the phone for an hour with him this morning.  He called me at about eight o'clock this morning, we got into this long conversation ... but I really miss that with Julius, because he's the one person....  I know one time he was doing a musical, and he asked me to help write the music.  I was so honored by that.  I realized he trusted me, and it came out of working together, and talking really hardcore music, to the point where we really didn't talk with anyone else like that.  "This is what I'm working on, and I've been working on these two bars for a whole day, and the problem I'm having is this, and voicing this, and I want tuba in this range, but it's too dark, and blah blah blah."  I really really really miss that.  I always felt him, even while he was in Japan on tour, or I'm in Paris and he's in San Francisco.  You have that feeling that they're no longer on the planet.  It's a void, with people like him and Cherry and Lester, Philip Wilson, people that you develop your music with, and they're no longer here.

Tafuri: It sounds like in Julius you had a real soulmate, in a way.

Carroll: Oh yeah.  Well, we were brothers.  My daughter was his goddaughter.  He and Oliver and I —we were like three brothers.  Here's a story that everyone likes.  When I went into the army, I was playing with people like Ike and Tina Turner, Albert King —you know, the blues people.  While I was in the Army, I started this band.  I got into Ornette Coleman, and I started writing and playing in that style; my CO didn't like that, so I put together this band that got together at like twelve o'clock at night.  We'd be playing "Ascension," you know [Laughter].  When I went back to St Louis, I went back to the same gigs; I did a gig with Sam and Dave, Albert King, and Little Milton, all those people.  It didn't do the same thing for me.  So how you gonna keep them down on the farm after they've seen Paris?  [Laughter.]  I had this small place, where I couldn't practice, so I'd go out to Forest Park, this park in St Louis, and I'd sit on the golf course with these big rolling hills and wide open spaces.  I'd sit there practicing by a tree, and it seemed like, a mile away, I could see this tiny figure coming.  And it seemed like after about forty-five minutes, he walked up, this 6'5" guy standing in front of me, and it was Julius.  And he said, "You sound good.  We're starting this organization called the Black Artist Group.  You ought to come over and play."  And from that point on, he and I became very close.  And Oliver, the three of us were like brothers.

Tafuri: Wow.  What was he doing on the golf course?

Carroll: I don't know.  I have no idea.  [Laughter] Who knows —I never asked him. [Laughter]

Tafuri: A little while ago, you mentioned Woody Shaw —when we were at the studio, when you were making the record, you did this tune "Ebullient Secrets," and I was going "man, this makes me feel like Woody Shaw."  Then later on, you talked about your relationship with Woody.  I got to meet Woody; in fact, I brought him to Cincinnati one time for a gig.  He used to come in about once a year —this is later on, when he was having his visual problems, and some other things, but still, there was this really ebullient spirit.  And in his music, for sure.

Carroll: Yeah.  I think I met him through Michael Cuscuna for the first time.  Michael was giving me a lot of sideman gigs, studio jingles.  I'd go to the office and Woody would be there, 'cause he was working with Dexter.  We found out we were both Capricorns —from that we just kind of hit it off.  Nothing close close, but we'd see each other at festivals, in airports now and then, and at one period we'd practice together —he would come by Bobo's.  He was really exploring going further out, and I guess at some point he decided not to.  He went way in.

Tafuri: That's true.

Carroll: Prior to that, he was really considering, you know?  He and Lester Bowie and Don Cherry would come; there'd be a lot of cats —Frank Lowe, all kinds of cats would come through.  Bobo was living there, so we could go and practice day and night.  I got to know him through that.

Tafuri: I've heard that recording of Julius and Abdul Wadud there.  Really great recording.

Carroll: That whole thing, "Ebullient [Secrets]," was written —basically, I wanted to swing, but I wanted something simple, yet boundlessly expansive.  Like a snapshot of the universe.

Tafuri: Wow.  That's not being too ambitious.  [Laughter]

Carroll: You know, I have a piece I'm working on now, called "Crystallized Epics."  It's to take something that's a huge subject, and make it very clean and clear and simple. And precise.

Tafuri: I like it.

Carroll: Like that piece, it's very simple, but you can stretch it and stretch it and stretch it.  We used the vehicle of swing to do that.  But you know, the initial idea was just of something that was simple but able to expand.

Tafuri: Definitely came off that way.

Carroll: And the whole idea of "ebullient" is exuberant ideas, kind of boiling over to get out.

Tafuri: One of the other tunes on here is a lot of ideas boiling over to get out —that's "A Thrill a Minute."

Carroll: Ha ha ha....  I broke up a long relationship with a woman in San Francisco; I went out for a weekend gig with Julius Hemphill, and ended up staying three years.  Nice lady.  [Laughter] I had an apartment, and Oliver moved in with me —he ended up staying there longer than I did.  When I came back to New York, I was like okay, I'm not getting involved....  I want to have a good time.  I was talking to Oliver's wife Marian, and I said, for this year, my scene is: a thrill a minute.  [Laughter]  That's where that piece comes from.  I didn't write it then; I wrote it recently, but that's where the title comes from.  Running around.

Tafuri: It really has a lot going on in it, that's for sure.

Carroll: Busy piece. [Laughter]

Tafuri: It's a lot of fun.  You mentioned briefly that you wrote this tune "Velma" for your grandmother.  Sounds like you had a really special relationship with her.

Carroll: Well, my mom had me at a very young age, so we were like sister and brother, almost.  Of course, I was her son, she was my mother, but we were so close, and my mom liked to go out —she didn't play, but she was always going out to hear music, hanging out, and we were kind of like sister and brother.  My grandmother was more like, Mom.  She was also like the matriarch of the family.  She was not just special for me, but she was special for everyone.  I was on tour last year with Carla Bley, and she passed away.

Tafuri: It's a beautiful piece.

Carroll: It's funny, because in doing it, it was a sad thing, but the piece doesn't come off as a sad piece.  I like that, because she was always inspiring for everyone in the family.  She was the one who had the big Thanksgiving dinners, and the big Christmas gatherings, and everybody would come.  She was the focal point of the family.  She always created this great mood, this atmosphere.  You always wanted to be around —"hey, I'm going to stay the weekend with Grandma."  You knew you were gonna have a good time —she always created a good time for you.

Tafuri: Not to play off what you were saying earlier about distilling a complex concept into something that's clean, "Crystallized Epics," but that piece, I remember when I heard it in the studio, I was really impressed by the fact that there was a lot there, but it was very clean and simple.  Simple in a good kind of way.

Carroll: You know, about my writing —I had a reputation.  All the cats, like Lester, would say "Aah, here comes Baikida with all that hard-ass music."  [Laughter] That's just the way I heard it.  But in the last fifteen years or so, I've come up with a concept of having simple components, but the way you hook them up, that's where the complexity would lie.  Like that song "Door of the Cage," with everybody in different keys; if you listen, the horns are just playing simple whole notes —when you start listening, and you break it down, you realize.  Oliver called me —he wanted to record it.  He said he's been listening to it for a long time on the CD in his car.  He said "I'd really like to record that with my steel band."  So I sent him the score, and he called and said "Damn, Baikida.  I had no idea."  [Laughter]  So the whole idea is to have this façade, or this image of being simple, but if you decide to analyze, and really explore what's going on within the compositional breakdown, there's a lot of things happening. 
This whole CD, Marionettes, a lot of it is based on my present involvement with threes.  I've been working with compound triplets.  As a matter of fact, after this CD, I think I've gotta pull myself away from it.  A lot of it is based on some form of triplets, like "Velma," if you listen to the piano part, he's playing sixteenth notes with one hand, and quarter-note triplets across the bar; he said it wore him out.  [Laughter]  Same thing with "Griot's Last Dance" —he's playing two against three.  It creates a bouncy or jumping-straight-up illusion.  I wanted to get the feeling of the Masai warriors of Kenya.  A lot of ways of manipulating threes, that whole compound triplet feeling.

Tafuri: So they're deceptively simple when you hear them; to play them is another thing.

Carroll: Yeah, when you break it down, you realize there's a lot more going on down under there's a whole triplet thing happening.

Tafuri: Well, one of the things I was so impressed with, you had quite an amazing array of musicians on this recording.

Carroll: Oh, yeah, I love these musicians.

Tafuri: Once we heard it, and worked through it, it sure took people of the caliber of Adegoke Colson and Michael Formanek and Pheeroan and Erica to do something like this, it seems like.

Carroll: Well the problem with the complexity is, there are a lot of people who could technically just sit down and run it right off.  But to find someone who's interested in going beyond normal —I like creating things to put musicians in another context, so that they pull from another source; as opposed to what they know, they pull from what the moment creates.

Tafuri: True vehicles.

Carroll: Yeah, you know, it makes them explore —makes them peek around the corner.  So players have to be willing to do that, first of all, and then be technically able to pull it off, because pieces like "Marionettes [on a High Wire]" are complex.  You don't hear that —it sounds very simple, but when you break it down —you have to have people that can actually play technically as well.  But the main thing is to bring that whole spirit, the soul, the essence of music.  Just trying to relay ideas, rather than "look at me, look at my gymnastics, look at how high I can play, look at how fast I can play."  To balance these qualities going at the same time takes very special musicians.  And they came to the country, up in the Catskills, for three days, rehearsing all day.  You don't find that any more.  I think Michael canceled a couple things to do it . We went away, then we came back and did three more days.  To the point where you can get the music off the paper —you don't hear the technical side of it.

Tafuri: Yeah, you're interpreting...

Carroll: Things like "Griot" and "Marionettes" and "A Thrill a Minute," or even "Our Say" —you can't tell, but there's a lot of funny things going on. In "Our Say," some of the transitions —it doesn't sound like it's complex, it just sounds like it's inevitable.  It takes a lot of work.  Normally, to do something like that, you could do it through a gig.  You know, three weeks at this club, then we got a month at this club, you can't do that any more.  So the only way you can do it is through extensive rehearsing.

Tafuri: So, in a way, are the musicians that were on this, including yourself, examples of what you were trying to say in the metaphor of marionettes on a high wire?

Carroll: Yeah, exactly, because the marionettes are a metaphor for the life of an artist.  The idea is to vehemently and colorfully explore your imagination.  To do this, one has to maintain an environment of open sinuosity or a looseness.  But the mores of functioning within your everyday encounters, such as paying bills and family life and politics, etc., that has to be vigilantly maintained, to avoid plunging into the abyss.  It's like a balancing act of polarities.  You have to deal with both ends, and you have to balance them.  You have to be true to each one.  You can't just attempt to pay your bills, or to make sure your mortgage is paid.  They don't take "oh, the gig didn't come through" —they say, "where's my money?" You gotta maintain that, be right on that, and that can take you in a direction where you don't necessarily want to be.

Tafuri: But you have to be true to each of those things in their own context.

Carroll: You have to be true to each one.  The reason I used the marionette is because it's a colorful figure, and they're usually thought of as very loose and basically controlled by your muse.  You could say "what did you just play, Baikida?"  And I'd say, "I have no idea. [Laughter]  It came out well, but I have no idea."  And that's the muse, guiding you through the music.  That's what's controlling the puppet strings.  But you have to be loose up there.  You have to be very colorful and animated, but at the same time, your feet have to very precise on that high wire.  In playing "Marionettes [on a High Wire]," the first solo, where everything stops, it's like, "and in the center ring, we have Erica Lindsay..." and then it breaks away, and all you hear is the drums, playing the tension...while you surefootedly dance your story.

Tafuri: I love it, I can see that.

Carroll: That's the whole imagery, the whole idea of it.  It's a metaphor for life, a very colorful and vivid image.  This figure, just trying to stay loose, but at the same time, the slightest oblique move and you fall into the abyss.  That abyss is just the mechanisms of society right now, the way things are set up.  You got to figure out how to make things work, and stay true to your art at the same time.  Like when I do theater stuff, I try to do it from the point where I'm working right now, from that particular point of view —as opposed to just going straight into formula writing. I can't do that.

Tafuri: No, you're trying to stay true.

Carroll: It's a really delicate balancing act.  Some people fall off, and they go all the way to one end or to the other, and lose sight of one.  It's like, you're homeless; you're a very creative artist, but you're homeless.  So the artists on this record are that same type.  They take care of all sides of the music —technical, creative, they're good spirits.  People like Ade, Pheeroan, like Michael Formanek, like Erica —they're just beautiful human beings.  It comes out in their playing —the warmth of their playing, the sincerity of their lines. 
From the last CD to this one, the only change has been Michael Formanek.  He worked with me back when I was in San Francisco.  He was so incredible —this was in 1978 —I came back to New York, and he called me in like 1986 or so, and said "Baikida, now I understand what you were doing."  [Laughter]  He said "I need another chance at it."  [Laughter]  So we got to talking, and we played in different bands, and somehow age came up.  I realized when he was playing with me in San Francisco, he was eighteen years old.  I had no idea.  That's the maturity of his playing.  He's such an incredible artist. 
Erica is just so smooth.  We played this weekend at Sweet Basil with Oliver, and everybody was just blown away.  She can be so powerful, but she's just very smooth.  She has a lot to say, and she says is in her own way; and she can be technical as you want to be, but that's not the focus of her playing.
Same with Pheeroan. 
And Ade.  Ade did a concert with the AACM, and he wasn't able to come until after, he and Pheeroan and Erica just happened to be at Sweet Basil, and we were all excited about the CD, because everybody felt that it was a very special thing.  We put a lot of work into it. 
They're very special artists.  Most of them are not appreciated, because they cover so many areas.  People see just one side, and say, well that's what they do.  Someone else may see the other side —but when you put the whole thing together, you realize—

Tafuri: —It's a new organic whole, sort of—

Carroll: —Yeah,  take for example Erica, she's a great composer.  And she used to play with McCoy Tyner, Diz, and Zappa —she's been around.  But most people just see one side, or another side, or another side.  But when you see the whole person, it's a very special artist.

Tafuri: Well, you know what occurred to me, when you were talking about the high wire, you are seeing the whole person.  There's nothing hidden.

Carroll: Yeah, and that whole idea of sitting in the audience, looking up at this tiny figure, totally exposed.  Death-defying.  And that's what it's like —death-defying.  You just lay it all out there.  You're not relying on licks and formulas, it's just "This is what it is, this is what I've learned, this is who I am, this is what I have to say."

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