Interview with Pete McCann about Most Folks (OmniTone 15213)
[on 19 December 2005 by Frank Tafuri]

Tafuri: When you're preparing to do a new recording, how do you decide what you're going to do on it?

McCann: Usually, I have a set number of tunes written out in advance and have certain players that I'd like to use on the recording, who I know (from past experience) are going to do a great job or whose records I've heard and whose concepts I think would work well with my music. 

Tafuri: Basically, what you're saying is that you write a batch of tunes and, sort of, get to this "critical mass" of new material that makes you say, "it's time to make a record."

McCann: Exactly.

Tafuri: Do you write those tunes with musicians already in mind, or do you write the tunes and then pick people to match the tunes?

McCann: Basically, the tunes I write are just concepts for improvisation that I like to work on, like specific sets of chord changes or chromatic concepts or something like that. 

Tafuri: Things that would work with any kind of instrumentation.

McCann: Yeah.  I would hate to think I wrote a certain tune for only a certain musician, so that no one else would ever want to play it.

Tafuri: But there's a long tradition of jazz composers writing tunes — not with the intent that only one person will ever want to play it — but write with the person's sound or the group's instrumentation in mind.  But you start out with the tunes.

McCann: Yeah, I kind of start out with the tunes.  When I sit down to try to write music, I don't have any preconceived notion of who it would be for — except that it's mainly for me.  It sounds so self centered — writing music for one's self — but that usually how it turns out to be.

Tafuri: Of course, everyone has different ideas about how they go about composing.  So, how did you come up with the configuration that you have on Most Folks?

McCann: I really like the sound of alto,1 and my previous recordings also had alto on them so, from that standpoint, there's nothing really new about that, except that since I'd been working with John O'Gallagher a bit, I knew he was the right man for the job.  I could really hear his horn, in particular, playing the music. 

Tafuri: Like his sound fit your "musical vehicle." 

McCann: I think he's a good foil for my ideas, since we'd worked together a lot in the past — especially at the Maine Jazz Camp.2

Tafuri: What's that?

McCann: That's a jazz camp up in Farmington, Maine, that goes on for three weeks each summer.  I've been doing it for the last eight years, and John O'Gallagher's been there for the last three years.  We've worked together a lot in the camp situation.  All the musicians up there — all the teachers — are from New York, so I know most of them, and it's a really fun time to go up there.

Tafuri: Summer's a good time to be in Maine, as opposed to being in a potentially sweltering New York area.  So, that's really lovely.  How about the other guys on the album?

McCann: John Hebert played on my previous recording, and I've played a lot with him over the last few years.  He's definitely one of the best bass players around in New York . . . or anywhere, for that matter. 

Tafuri: He's appearing on the new John McNeil record we're putting out next month, East Coast Cool,3 and he's also on Change of Time 4. . .

McCann: . . . with Russ Lossing . . .

Tafuri: . . . doing the Bartók Mikrokosmos interpretations.  Yeah, I love John.  Besides being an amazing bassist, he's a nice guy, and he's easy to work with.

McCann: And with him, you really know what you're getting into, because he's so into playing music.  He bring his total self — his personality, his incredible technique — and his sense of how to play over "free music" is bar none.  He's one of the best players right now.

Tafuri: He's totally there when he's playing . . . and that can't be said about everybody. 

McCann: Right.  And Mark Ferber, he's another guy I met through the Maine Jazz Camp circle, and right now he's playing with everybody, too.

Tafuri: Well, he's on Russ's record,5 and he's on this new Johnnie Valentino record that we're releasing in February.6

McCann: And with The Other Quartet; that's where I've played with him the most, for a couple of years with Ohad7 and Russ.

Tafuri: You met him at the Camp, before you started doing The Other Quartet?

McCann: No, I actually did The Other Quartet first, but then, the last few years, he's been up at the Maine Camp, too.  I think the world of him; he's really a great musician . . . and of his brother,8 too.  They're really great guys.

Tafuri: They're cool.

McCann: And Mike Holober, who plays piano on three tracks, I met through Dave Pietro,9 and he hooked me up with teaching at City College.10  We've kind of kept in touch over the years and played on various projects at one time or another.  When I was writing the music, I thought it would be nice to have piano on a few tracks, just because my previous albums don't have any harmonic instrument.11  I dig what he does; he's a really great piano player.

Tafuri: I like the way his playing sounds on the record, because it can be a little tricky — especially in an ensemble this size — having two chordal instruments, and the playing of the two of you is very complimentary on the record. 

Well, Pete, I have to say, um, maybe this record is one of your "best efforts" as a leader . . .

McCann: [Laughs.]  My wife said the same thing!  She said, "Now you're finally writing some really hard music."  [Laughs some more.]

Tafuri: Well, I think that your other records as a leader are nice, but I also think there's something "special" about this one, compared to the others.  So now, on the occasion of your third album as a leader and your debut as a leader on OmniTone, one of the things that I've never talked to you about is: How did you become a guitar player?  I mean, you don't have to do the whole gruesome story now (I mean, I'm being facetious here) . . .

McCann: [Laughs.]  When I was eight years old, after pestering my mom for three or four months on end that I really wanted to play guitar, for some reason.  Finally, she went to the local music store and bought a guitar, and I remember opening up the box (because there was no case) and just being enamored with my first guitar . . . which I still have.  I keep it up in the attic of my house.  Then we went back to the same store where she bought the guitar, and the guitar instructor wouldn't teach me, because I was "too young," and he was only taking students "ten and up." 

Tafuri: I love that.

McCann:  My mom made a deal with him that she would go to the lessons with me and sit there and make sure I didn't fool around or goof off, and she would make sure that I would actually practice — almost every day.  When you're learning those first tunes like "Skip to My Lou," it helps when your mom is whistling along in back.

Tafuri: [Laughs.] 
[Both start laughing.]

Tafuri: But it sounds like you don't really know why you wanted to play guitar, do you?
McCann: I don't know.  I guess it was because . . .  (Geez.  I don't really know.)

Tafuri: That's interesting.

McCann: I don't know.  I guess there was just something about it that "hit" me or "struck" me that made me want to try it. 

Tafuri: And, so, you didn't really mind that your mother was telling you to practice.

McCann: No, no, I was just happy to be playing.

Tafuri: 'Cause usually the story is: The kid goes to the parent, saying "I wanna play this instrument," the parents get the kid the instrument and then, when the kid can't immediately play the kind of music they want to play — rock 'n' roll or jazz or whatever — and they have to play something like "Skip to My Lou" instead, they say, "Forget about this," and the parents can't get them to practice.  I've talked to so many musicians who, when I want to know about their early days, say they started off with a totally different instrument than the one they're playing now because of that.

McCann: You know, I've always been guitar since day one.

Tafuri: That's interesting.

McCann: I tried to learn piano in high school, but I never really did much with it.  But my mom used to play piano and sing in the choir, and she played flute when she was young, and my older sister also plays the flute.  So, there are a few other people playing instruments in my family.

Tafuri: That's cool.  This was in . . .

McCann: Eau Claire, Wisconsin.  "Clear Water." 

Tafuri: Did you play in high school, then?  Did you play in bands?

McCann: I played in bands with my friends.  In high school, I played in marching band — I used to play bass drum — and in pep band.

Tafuri: I was gonna say, "You gotta marching band with an electric guitar?"

McCann: [Laughs.]  Yeah, electric guitar in marching band is hard.  The cord didn't go far enough onto the football field.

Tafuri: [Laughs.]  Yeah, and I could hear it now, "I'm the acoustic guitar player in the marching band."

McCann: And I used to play guitar in the jazz band . . . and a little bit of bass. 

Tafuri: Electric?

McCann: Electric bass but, when I was in junior high school, I had a teacher who said, "The only way you can play in the orchestra is if you play an orchestral instrument."  He said, "I don't have anybody playing acoustic bass," so that was one of the best things that happened to me when I was in seventh grade.  He said, "Here's how you hold the bow, and this is how you read bass clef," and that's helped me out so much.  I can't tell you how much it's helped me.

Tafuri: Playing a fretless instrument.

McCann: Playing a fretless instrument, reading a different clef, trying to play with a bow, and make sounds to get in with the orchestra was pretty cool.

Tafuri: Do you ever have the inclination to pick up a string bass? 

McCann: Not anymore . . . and now I know better.  [Laughs.]

Tafuri: Well, yes, that'd be pretty intimidating living and playing in New York

McCann: It is.

Tafuri: Because there are so many great players around . . . and you've worked with a number of them.  That's cool.  So, you played guitar through high school.

McCann: And I had a couple of great teachers, especially Russ Moss, who used to play second cornet in the Milton Berle Show live TV broadcasts from New York.

Tafuri: Oh, wow.

McCann: And somehow he moved to Wisconsin after that.  He used to play cornet and jazz guitar, and he used to write out old tunes for me by hand.  I still have the original manuscripts back at home.  It's really amazing.  He was a great cat.

Tafuri: His original tunes?

McCann: Well, he had some original tunes, but he'd write out Django Reinhardt-type heads.12   We used to play through them.  We used to play duets, so I had a little advantage over the other students at that time.

Tafuri: Did you take actual lessons with him?

McCann: Yes, he was great.  Probably for about four years.

Tafuri: And then, at a certain point . . .

McCann: At a certain point, I started realizing I wanted to go to college and get a degree in music.  I think my parent were pretty, um, skeptical [chuckles] that I could many any money at all playing music.  But then they could sense that I had some talent and that it was really what I wanted to do, so I ended up going to North Texas13 and getting a degree there.

Tafuri: I didn't know that's where you went to school.

McCann: Yeah, I went to "Bebop University."  That's how I have my hook-up with all the North Texas guys up here. 

Tafuri: Ahh, I never knew that.  Yeah, that's some serious straight-ahead jazz down there, isn't it?

McCann: Straight-ahead jazz and lots of sight reading.  I used to work a lot down in Dallas playing gigs.  It's an interesting scene down there.  Oddly enough, I didn't get into country and western music until I got up here to New York.  [Laughs.]  I managed to steer clear from it down there. 

Tafuri: You didn't play any of those gigs down there?

McCann: No.  Though I did do quite a few Dixieland banjo gigs.

Tafuri: Dixieland banjo?

McCann: Yes.  I'm one of the few people who owns a Dixieland banjo.  [Laughs.]

Tafuri: I wanna hear you play banjo some time.  We should get you on banjo on some recording.  Maybe we should do the "Uncommon Instrument Album" and get everyone to play instruments that they don't normally play.  [Chuckles.]

McCann: I don't sound that bad on it. 

Tafuri: Yeah, well, that's cool.  It's an interesting instrument.

McCann: Maybe John McNeil playing the euphonium he has at his house.

Tafuri: Yeah.  That'd be a good idea.  I like that.

So, how did you end up coming here to New York?

McCann: I jumped on a cruise ship for one summer —

Tafuri: That's a good trick!

McCann: Yeah, I jumped on a cruise ship one summer and saved up all my money and moved to New York with two of my college buddies.  We all graduated at the same time, moved to Queens, rented a house . . .

Tafuri: [Starts singing "New York, New York"] "If I can make it there, I can make it any-where . . ."

McCann: Exactly.  December of 1989 — that's when I moved up here. 

Tafuri: Wow!  So, you've been here "a minute."

McCann: Yeah.  Long enough to do quite a bit of "what's required."

Tafuri: Oh, yeah.  Okay . . .

McCann: [Laughs.] 

Tafuri: I guess that's the nice, Midwestern way of saying "dues paying."

McCann: Dues paying.

Tafuri: Well, your background is interesting because, to hear you play — I mean, you've already been on OmniTone records a couple of times now on the Tom Varner records14  — you play all different styles.

McCann: I do.

Tafuri: I mean, you can get into a Hard Rock thing, you can get into a Delta Blues thing, you can get into a Wes Montgomery or a Sonny Sharrock thing.  Your playing is quite versatile.  I always get a kick out of watching people at gigs watching you when you get into your throw-down rock thing, and peoples' expressions seem to be saying, "You mean, that mild-mannered young man is playing that; how can he be playing that?"

McCann: I hear that all the time from people.  They're always, like, "How did you learn to play like that?" or "Who are your influences?" I tell them the same thing I've told everybody from day one: "I like music; I like all different types of jazz — jazz-rock, jazz fusion, old-school standard jazz, nylon-stringed Brazilian guitar styles — I love it all."  You know, I try to play most of it, because it's something I'm interested in.  I don't like to be and I've never been really pigeonholed into one category.  I don't even know why you should really have to be. 

Tafuri: I don't think you should either, but people need to pin music down with terms so the Average Joe can talk about it.  Certainly, in the music industry, you have to do that if you want to sell in retail.

McCann: Of course, otherwise you're going to make marketing people crazy.

Tafuri: Well, I was going to be one of those people to ask you about your musical influences, but I guess you're kind of a "musical sponge."

McCann: Well, here's the thing . . .  Growing up in Wisconsin, my dad used to play WAXX Radio, which was Country and Western 24/7.  I had an older brother who was listening to Three Dog Night and Peter Frampton and Bachman Turner Overdrive.  My mom is listening to the classical radio station.  My sister's playing flute.  And then, when I was in high school, I had teachers who were interested in having me listen to jazz music.  So, when I was sixteen, I ended up working at a music store that sold records and musical equipment and, downstairs, they gave lessons.  I started giving lessons after school and, with the money I'd make doing that, I'd go upstairs and buy records as soon as I was done with my four-hour shift.

Tafuri: Do you remember the first record you ever bought?

McCann: For my collection?

Tafuri: Yeah.  That you bought yourself

McCann: I think it was probably a Bill Evans recording. 

Tafuri: Really?!

McCann: Yeah. 

Tafuri: Wow!

McCann: Yeah, because something really interested me about his take on standards,15 especially and then, later, of course, listening to his originals, which was some really inspiring, harmonically-challenging music.

Tafuri: Yeah, but I love Evans' takes on standards.  There are a few tunes that, whenever I hear them, I hear him playing them; in my mind, they're his.  Like, for example, his version of "My Romance," that's a pinnacle for me.  When I hear someone do "My Romance," I hear "the trio."16

McCann: Of course.

Tafuri: They're so beautiful.

McCann: And when I was still in high school, I started doing gigs.  When I was sixteen, there was a kind-of posh hotel downtown that had a jazz bar six nights a week.

Tafuri: In Eau Claire?

McCann: Yeah, in Eau Claire.  Initially, my mom would come with me, and we talked to all the bartenders who made sure I wasn't going to try to steal a drink.  [Laughs.]

Tafuri: Yup, the sixteen-year-old guitarist boozin' it up . . .

McCann: And I made friends with some of the college kids, so I started sitting in with them. 

Tafuri: Wow!

McCann: Before long, I was playing gigs with them.  We were just reading tunes out of the Real Book.17

Tafuri: The real Real Book.

McCann: The original Real Book

Tafuri: I have one of those, too.  Bought it a Kinko's in Cincinnati, before Kinko's was the big chain they later became.

McCann: Really?

Tafuri: There was a Kinko's near the University of Cincinnati's College Conservatory of Music, and to get a copy was one of those deals.  It was almost like finding out about an apartment in Little Italy by having to go to the butcher's shop to talk to the butcher about the apartment and having the butcher size you up first before he gives you any info about the apartment.  You had to go in there and, like, "Say the magic words," and then, if they thought you were okay, they'd just dupe one up for you. 
[Both laugh.]

Tafuri: Well, that's nice.  I guess, when you're a nice guy, good things happen to you.

You know, on this record, you have a lot of those influences you mentioned earlier.  You have nylon-string, Brazilian-tinged sounds, you have rock-edged sounds, you have cookin' jazz — you have a little bit of everything on here.  How did you come up with Most Folks?

McCann: Most Folks?  That's an interesting question.  A friend of mine gave me a CD of celebrities trying to do voice-overs for commercials and, on one of them, was Colonel Sanders18 trying to get through a radio spot.  [Chuckles.]  He's pretty old at that point and probably had "a few" in him.
Tafuri: A little Kentucky bourbon, no doubt.
McCann: He's trying to get through this commercial spot, and he comes to "most folks," and he just can't do it.  He keeps going, [doing an imitation with a Southern drawl] "Moh, moh, moh-st, most, moh, mohst fohks, mohst fohks . . ."
Tafuri: [Wheezing with laughter.]
McCann: And, finally, he gets to the point where he says, "Whaddaya want me to do?  Sing the damned thing?"  'Cause he can't say it.
[Both laugh.]

McCann: A couple of my friends have this recording, and we'd call each other and leave answering machine messages like, "Moh, moh, mohst, mohst foh . . ."  That would be all it would take, and we'd all be over the edge laughing hysterically.  On long van trips, we'd just be doing that thing back and forth.  So, that's where Most Folks comes from.

Tafuri: So, why call the album that?

McCann: Well, it's the lead-off track on the CD.  I don't know.  [Claps hands.]  It's just, "most folks."

Tafuri: Did you write the tune after you heard the blooper track?

McCann: [Laughs.]  Yeah, actually.  I had written this tune and thought, 'What am I going to call it?'  It kind of reminded me of a Kenny Wheeler19 tune called "Kind Folks."  So, I thought, well, "Most Folks" kinda fit.

Tafuri: Okay.

McCann: It's an hommage to Kenny Wheeler and Colonel Sanders.  [Laughs.]  And, actually, the tune itself has some chromatic harmony vehicles (if you will) that Kenny uses.  Instead of major chords going up in half-steps, the root gets changed from one chord to another, so it doesn't have that "cadential sound" of going up in half-steps, but that's actually what's occurring: one major chord going up a half‑step but, since you change the root of the chord, you get away from the obvious.  It's a different angle on going about something that's expected, which is something that fascinates me: slipping through chromaticism while, at the same time, avoiding it through the root movement of the bass.  That's an interesting side issue with that song.20

Tafuri: Hmmm.  Do you like to play musical "games" like that in your music?

McCann: Yeah, and it's something that interests me because, you know, Kenny Wheeler is someone that I really admire — especially his writing style.  I've analyzed a lot of his tunes and transcribed his music.

Tafuri: Have you ever worked with Kenny?

McCann: I did.  I had a chance to work with him in 1995.  A friend of mine named Erwin Vann, a Belgian saxophone player, was commissioned by the Belgian government to write a large piece of music, and Kenny Wheeler was the featured soloist.  It was an interesting band with Lindsay Horner, a bass player from New York, several Belgian musicians — a four-piece string group and a four-piece vocal group — and an African percussionist who was flown in from Africa.  So, it was really interesting.  It ended up being sixteen musicians.

Tafuri: Wow.

McCann: So, I got a chance to work with Kenny firsthand for what ended up being a week, then we recorded an album.

Tafuri: Was it over there in Belgium?

McCann: Yeah, over there.  I was always a big fan of his music, and I got to hang with him a little bit.  There's nothing like being next to somebody who you admire or just having a conversation with him over dinner and hearing his take on music . . . and stories . . .

Tafuri: And on "non-music."

McCann: Yeah.

Tafuri: I found, when I did radio years ago, sometimes the most revealing interviews I did with musicians was when we weren't talking about their music. 

McCann: Yeah, yeah.  What do they like to read or the movies they see.

Tafuri: Something other than music, because I think a lot of artists have a hard time talking about their music, because the music is so close, so intrinsic to them.  I remember when I interviewed Dizzy,21 we talked about Meerschaum pipes. 

McCann: Really?

Tafuri: I really didn't know anything about them, but I had heard he was into them.  Just in listening to him talk about pipes, you could get a good idea of how he came at his music.

Who's Jojo"?22

McCann: Jojo is my younger son, and that tune is written for him.  On each of my records, I have a tune for one of my close family members featured.  My first album has a tune called "Patricia."23  My second record has a tune called "Mister Fritters," which was written for Patrick, my older son.  And now, for my younger son, "Jojo's Waltz."  So, on my next records, because I'm running out of people, I'll have to write tunes for my cats.  [Laughs.]

Tafuri: Or you'll just have to have more kids. 

McCann: Oh, no!  We're not gonna go there. 
[Both laugh.]

Tafuri: "Las Tias."

McCann: My wife has two aunts, and they're very proper, very Spanish women.  One is named Sara and one is named Paca.  I've gotten to meet them and become friends with them over the years.

Tafuri: Is your wife Spanish?

McCann: Yeah, well, half Spanish.

Tafuri: From Spain?

McCann: From Ecuador.  Her dad is from Ecuador, as are the aunts in "Las Tias."  And the tune is a rumba, so it really doesn't have too much to do with Spanish music —

Tafuri: Or, at least, Ecuador.

McCann: But, when I wrote the tune, I thought, 'What would be a nice title for this?'

Tafuri: So, the title is "The Aunts."  You have McNeil's24 first record, This Way Out, don't you?

McCann: [Laughs.] Yeah, it's a great one.

Tafuri: Well, there's this tune on there called "Mi Tio."  Did you read the liner notes to it?

McCann: No, I didn't read the liner notes.

Tafuri: Oh, you gotta read the liner notes, because they explain that the original title for that tune was "Mi Tio Es Enfermo," which means "my uncle is sick," which is the only complete sentence John said he knew how to say in Spanish.

McCann: [Laughs.]

Tafuri: And there's even some question as to whether that sentence is correct.  Well, they played it so many times in rehearsal, that instead of always saying the whole title when they called the tune, it just got shortened to "Mi Tio."  So, that's good, OmniTone has another title that's a foray into the Spanish language.

How about "About Face"?

McCann: That's a tune where the melody is played up to eight bars, then I play the melody again, backwards.

Tafuri: "Retrograde."25

McCann: It was influenced by John Coltrane's tune — aw, what is that tune?

Tafuri: [Starts scatting "Miles' Mode."]

McCann: [Sings along for a few notes.]  Yeah, that's it, "Miles' Mode"!  [He finishes singing the opening line of the tune.]

Tafuri: [Joins him singing to finish the line.] 

McCann: It's just a vehicle of improv. 

Tafuri: Is "Miles' Mode" a retrograde thing?  I've never thought about that before . . .

McCann: Well, it's the notes played backward at a certain point.  The rhythm is slightly changed.  And, with my tune, too, the rhythm is slightly changed, but the melody's notes are exactly the same.

Tafuri: When listening to "About Face," I picked up on the retrograde thing going on.  I didn't think it had anything to do with the military term,26

McCann: [Laughs.]  No, no.  Please, no military.  Please. 

Tafuri: Or about Oil of Olay . . .  When I heard the tune, even though it's not as mechanical sounding as some serial music can be, I did become aware of the serial and retrograde aspects of the tune.

McCann: I have tried to write some music like that — twelve-tone music — because that's something that fascinates me, too, as much as all the other stuff.

Tafuri: So, doing the retrograde version of the melody is your "game" in this one.

McCann: Right.  Exactly. 

Tafuri: "Yes, My Friend."

McCann: That's something you might hear when you get into a taxi in New York. 

Tafuri: Ohhhhh . . .  Ah-ha!

McCann: "Yes, my friend.  Where would you like to go?"

Tafuri: [With a Middle Eastern sounding accent] "Yeys, my frrrriendh."

McCann: And the melody and the vamp have a Middle Eastern "tinge" to them.  But that's about it.  It doesn't have any particular scales involved or anything like that.

Tafuri: So, you know, McNeil also has a taxi-inspired tune on This Way Out.

McCann: Yeah, "My Taxi," which I've played with him.  I love that song.  [Sings the first few notes in a nasal tone.]

Tafuri: Now, with Most Folks, we have another taxi tune.  That's good.  How about "Hunter Gatherer"?

McCann: "Hunter Gatherer."  Aw, this is something that pissed me off.  One time I was listening to George Bush talk out of his ass as usual, and he said we're going to use "a gathering force" — this is before the Iraq war — which I thought was kind of silly. 

Tafuri: What does "a gathering force" mean?

McCann: I have no idea, but it's an example of the kind of "back speak" and double speak that Bush uses all the time.  Somehow, once it's spun to all the Fox News networks, it becomes "major news."  This is my hommage to the most stupid war of all time. 

Tafuri: It sounds like you're really sensitized to this.

McCann: Oh, it's just, ah, um . . .

Tafuri: You don't even want to get into it, do you?

McCann: Oh, you just wonder how these kinds of things can happen, you know?

Tafuri: Yeah.

McCann: Just like the Senate appropriations bill: We're Gonna Dig Up Alaska, Now, and Look for Oil.  It doesn't make any sense.

Tafuri: So, you're this kind of seething-under-the-surface political pot of boiling oil ready to boil over.

McCann: It's funny, too, because most of the musicians I hang out with have a similar viewpoint . . . which is: that the government should be here to help people, not screw them out of everything they own.  It's just so disheartening, I don't know.  When I go to another country, you see how things could be, then you come back here — it's amazing.

Tafuri: And, you know, "The War" affected the publicity for one of the records you were on.  For Second Communion,27 NPR28 had a thirteen-minute piece they were ready to run on it and Tom Varner.  They had interviewed Cam29 and Tom, and they were all ready to run the piece.  That was in March of 2003.  A week before the story would have probably run, the war broke out. 

McCann: Aw, jeez!

Tafuri: They preempted all their cultural programming, which preempted that.  When it finally ran, months later, it ran on Weekend Edition Saturday, cut down to six or eight minutes.  It was on the occasion of Washington State proclaiming a day "Tom Varner Day" for an upcoming visit and series of concerts he was doing there. 

McCann: That's heavy!  And now he's living in that neck of the woods.

Tafuri: Yeah, he's living their now.  [Laughs.]

Well, I've mentioned his name a couple of times now — and it probably has nothing to do with him — but how about the title "JM."

McCann: That's for one of my two guitar heroes, John McLaughlin. 

Tafuri: Oh, "John McLaughlin."  I get it.

McCann: The riff at the beginning is inspired by several of his tunes.  For three years, I played in the Mahavishnu Project, so I know a little bit about his music.  I've definitely been inspired over the years, listening to him and watching him play live.  He's definitely one of the all-time-great guitar gods.  The first time you ever hear Intermounting Flame or Birds of Fire, you'll never forget it, because they're just records that changed the course of musical history.

Tafuri: Wow.

McCann: And I was in a group, that was lead by Bobby Previte,30 where we tried to re-create Bitches' Brew.31  So, I've worked on that side of McLaughlin, too: the very exploratory, modal side.

Tafuri: That was the band that played every week in New York, right?  It had an on-going gig.

McCann: For two-and-a-half years, we played every Tuesday night at the Knitting Factory . . . for probably $8 a man. 
[Both laugh.]

McCann: And we thought we were doing good.  [Laughs.]

Tafuri: (And maybe you were, I don't know.)  Before, you said 'one of two guitar heroes.'  Who's the other one?

McCann: It's Allan Holdsworth, and he's what the title of the tune "Worth" is all about.  So, I have my two heroes on this record. 

Tafuri: I thought you were going to tell me your other hero was somebody like Jimi Hendrix. 

McCann: [Chuckles.]

Tafuri: That was some pretty revolutionary stuff that he played.  [Laughs.]

McCann: And Hendrix influenced McLaughlin, so there's a definite lineage, you know?  And Holdsworth was probably influenced by those two guys — and whomever else.  It's interesting; he didn't start playing guitar until he was seventeen.

Tafuri: Kind of a late-bloomer, as far as jazz goes.

McCann: But now he's pushing 60 and sounding just as great as ever.  I'm still hoping there's hope for me.  [Laughs.]
[Both laugh.]

McCann: I got another 20 years left!

Tafuri: (There you go.  Aw, that's alright.  You'll be fine.)  "Third Wheel."

McCann: "Third Wheel."  That's a Kenny Wheeler32-influenced sound.  The harmonies are moving in major thirds and minor thirds.33  That tune is definitely influenced by his tune "Heyoke," which is on the album Gnu High.34  I thought, while I was in the studio, I'd play nylon string guitar on that.

Tafuri: "Straight eighths."35  Nobody know what to call those.  I had a whole discussion with Liebman36 about that, like, "Whaddaya call those things?"  "ECM eighths."

McCann: ECM eighths. 

Tafuri: "Split Decision."

McCann: There's a good story behind this tune.  When we were at the end of the recording session — and I had left this tune until last, thinking, 'If we don't get to it, that's fine' — but O'Gallagher had worked on it, and he was ready to go, and he said, "No, let's do it!"  So, we ended up doing it in the first take, and it came out great.  It's basically a Rhythm changes37 form with a kind of twelve-tone38 melody.  The "split decision" part comes from the poly-chord39 treatment of the bass; the bass is playing the tri-tone harmonies of where the normal Rhythm changes would lie.  He's pedaling these different tonalities.  So, it doesn't really have anything to do with . . .

Tafuri: You have all these puns in there.

McCann: [Chuckles.] Yeah, I know.  It doesn't really have anything to do with baseball . . .

Tafuri: Or maybe, perhaps, boxing.  I think of the refs having a "split decision."

McCann: Well, O'Gallagher and me end up "boxing"; we trade ideas a little bit in there, so, I guess you could say there's a boxing reference.

Tafuri: Is there anything else you feel is special about the record?

McCann: I think people will like it.  I don't try to do records necessarily thinking of the listener's side of things.  You know, most of jazz is pretty self-serving; it's such an "artist's music," where other artists appreciate the music more than the average listener.  I don't know.  I just get into doing what I want to do, and if people like it, that's great and, if they don't, I hope they don't tell anybody about it.  [Laughs.]

Tafuri: Well, it's interesting to hear you said that, because that's the subject of an on-going discussion I've been having with artists.  That's one of the things where I think new music — creative improvised music, or whatever you want to call it — that's one of the areas where I think guys don't "get it."  I don't know how to say it; the easiest way to say it is, "I think they're afraid to have too much fun when they're making their music."

McCann: Exactly.

Tafuri: I think they feel like that, if they would ever be perceived as "an entertainer," God forbid!

McCann: Like they'll be less of an artist.

Tafuri: Like you won't be taken as a "serious musician" and, yet, there are some great artists, some great jazz musicians in history who've been great entertainers and great musicians.  I just had this whole discussion with someone recently, about how sometimes "new music people" take themselves a little too seriously.

McCann: Yeah, yeah.

Tafuri: And that attitude is cutting down the audience because, with that attitude, they're not drawing in the audience as much as they might. 

McCann: Exactly.

Tafuri: But you sound like you're not worried about that either.

McCann: I would like to think that I'm not worried about it.  I do know that, when you play certain types of music, you almost don't even want to look at the audience, because you don't want to be influenced by their reactions or by no reaction at all. 

Tafuri: But you still know whether it's right or wrong.

McCann: Yeah.

Tafuri: You can get a "vibe."

McCann: You can feel if it's going over or what's not working.

1 Alto saxophone   [Return to interview]

2 The Maine Jazz Camp, since 1979, has been introducing jazz to students from all over Maine and beyond. Each week over 50 students participate in Maine Jazz Camp in an atmosphere of campus living and jazz music, quickly assimilating its program of ensemble playing, improvisation and theory. Students are housed in a dormitory setting on the campus of the University of Maine at Farmington, located in the beautiful western hills of Maine, approximately a two hour drive from Portland.  More information is available at  [Return to interview]

2 John McNeil: East Coast Cool (OmniTone 15211), released January 2006, with John McNeil, trumpet; Allan Chase, baritone saxophone; John Hebert, bass; and Matt Wilson, drums, slide whistle  [Return to interview]

4 Change of Time: Change of Time (OmniTone 15102) with Russ Lossing, piano; John Hebert, bass; and
Adam Kolker, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, bass clarinet  [Return to interview]

5 Russ Johnson: Save Big (OmniTone 12205) with Russ Johnson, trumpet; John O'Gallagher, alto saxophone; Kermit Driscoll, bass; and Mark Ferber, drums, percussion  [Return to interview]

6 Johnnie Valentino: Stingy Brim (OmniTone 15212) with Johnnie Valentino, guitar, mandolin; Mick Rossi, Hammond B-3, harmonium, percussion; Mark Ferber, drums, percussion; Bob Sheppard, clarinet, tenor saxophone; and Randy Jones, tuba  [Return to interview]

7 Saxophonist, composer, arranger, and co-leader (with Russ Johnson) of The Other Quartet  [Return to interview]

8 Mark's twin brother, Alan Ferber, is a trombonist and bandleader.  [Return to interview]

9 Multi-reed player, composer, and band leader Dave Pietro  [Return to interview]

11 "Harmonic" as in "chordal" instrument or an instrument (like a piano) that can play chords rather than just single notes  [Return to interview]

12 "Heads" as in "tunes" or "songs."  A jazz expression referring to melodies and accompanying chord changes, used as a launch point to improvisation.  The term probably evolved from the musical expression "Da Capo" or "from the head," referring to the playing from the beginning (or head) of a musical piece.  [Return to interview]

13 Often called "North Texas State University," the University of North Texas in Denton (near Dallas) is well-known for its Division of Jazz Studies, which is one of the first and foremost college jazz programs in the US.  [Return to interview]

14 Pete appears on two records by jazz French hornist and composer Tom Varner: (1) as a "special guest" on Swimming (OmniTone 11903) with Steve Wilson, alto saxophone; Tony Malaby, tenor saxophone; Cameron Brown, bass; Tom Rainey, drums; Mark Feldman, violin; and Dave Ballou, trumpet; and (2) on Second Communion (OmniTone 12102) with Tony Malaby, tenor saxophone, Cameron Brown, bass; Matt Wilson, drums, percussion; and Dave Ballou, trumpet.  [Return to interview]

15 Referring to "standard songs" that form the canon of the "straight-ahead jazz" repertoire, usually consisting mostly of popular songs of the 20s through 40s.  [Return to interview]

16 Referring to the trio of Bill Evans, piano; Scott LaFaro, bass; and Paul Motian, drums, which made a series of sublime live recordings at the Village Vanguard in New York over a few days time in July 1961, recordings that have influenced generations of jazz musicians since their release on Riverside.  [Return to interview]

17 The Real Book: A bootleg collection of "heads" (see footnote 12) or melody lines with accompanying chords of mostly standards and some newer tunes, photocopied and used by musicians worldwide as a source for printed music, some of which was not available in printed form.  [Return to interview]

18 Colonel Harland Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken.  [Return to interview]

19 Jazz trumpeter and composer Kenny Wheeler  [Return to interview]

20 Referring to the opening track of the CD, "Most Folks."  [Return to interview]

21 Referring, of course, to John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie, trumpeter, composer, bandleader, raconteur, and one of the founding fathers of bebop  [Return to interview]

22 Referring to the name in the title of Pete's composition on track two of Most Folks, "Jojo's Waltz"  [Return to interview]

23 Pete's wife  [Return to interview]

24 Again, referring to trumpeter, composer, mischief maker, and OmniTone recording artist John McNeil  [Return to interview]

25 A musical term for playing a sequence of notes backwards.  The term came into existence in music as the result of early 20th century composers, such as Arnold Schoenberg, known as "serial composers," who created 12-tone "melodies" using all the twelve chromatic tones in an octave, playing each tone just once in the row.  The "tone row," as it is called, can then varied by playing it backwards, "inverting" or flipping it (turning it into its mirror image on the staff), and even using both techniques, creating an inverted, retrograde version of the tone row.  [Return to interview]

26 Referring to the military term "about face," which means, "turn around" or "spin around 180 degrees."  [Return to interview]

28 National Public Radio  [Return to interview]

29 Referring to bassist, composer, and bandleader Cameron Brown, performed on both OmniTone CDs by  Tom Varner (see footnote 14) and has released an album on OmniTone, Cameron Brown and the Hear and Now: Here and How (OmniTone 15205)  [Return to interview]

30 Referring to drummer, percussionist, composer, and bandleader Bobby Previte  [Return to interview]

31 Referring to Bitches' Brew, Miles Davis's groundbreaking 1969 album that some say launched Fusion Jazz or Jazz-Rock Fusion.  [Return to interview]

33 "Major thirds" and "minor thirds" referring to intervals of the musical scale.  To hear the interval for a major third, start with any key on a piano (black or white) and count up 5 keys (counting all the black and white keys).  The starting note and the ending note are the two pitches that make up a "major third."  To hear a minor third, start with any key and count up 4 keys.  [Return to interview]

34 Kenny Wheeler's debut album for ECM, recorded in 1975.  [Return to interview]

35 Referring to a style of playing rhythms in a non-syncopated fashion, popularized particularly on ECM recordings.  Normally, jazz is thought of for it's syncopated, "swing" rhythms.  [Return to interview]

36 Referring to multi-saxophonist, composer, bandleader, and educator David (Dave) Liebman, who has a Grammy-nominated recording on OmniTone, The David Liebman Big Band: Beyond the Line (OmniTone 12204).  [Return to interview]

37 "Rhythm changes" refers to the underlying chord changes to George Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" which, besides the blues, is probably the most performed set of chord changes in jazz.  [Return to interview]

39 Don't know.  Write Pete at and ask him what it is.  [Return to interview]



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