Interview with Dan Willis about his recording Velvet Gentlemen on OmniTone

Dan Willis in action #1 Dan Willis in action #2 Dan Willis in action #3 Dan Willis in action #4 Dan Willis in action #5 Dan Willis in action #6

Tafuri: So, how did you come up with the title "Velvet Gentlemen?"

Willis: Erik Satie, who was a pretty eccentric composer, would often walk around his neighborhood with his umbrella and velvet jacket.  So, the little kids in the neighborhood nicknamed him "The Velvet Gentleman," because they always saw him in a velvet jacket, all the time.  I though that that was very interesting, so I began reading more about Erik Satie.

Tafuri: How'd you get into Satie?

Willis: Shortly after an auto accident I was involved in, where I suffered a whiplash injury, I began seeing an acupuncturist regularly, who I still go to see now.  (It's been five years.)  And the very first thing she put on was a collection of Erik Satie's music.  I was prepared for her to put on some New Age crap (which is one of the reasons I didn't want to go see an acupuncturist), but I thought, ‘Wow, this woman is so wonderful for putting this on.'  And every time I went back, it was always the same album.

Tafuri: Was it small ensemble music, or was it solo piano?

Willis: It was solo piano.  I believe the performer's name was Pascal Rogé.  It was beautifully interpreted.

Tafuri: And you really hadn't heard much Satie at that point?

Willis: Hmm, not much.  Well, when you study classical music at a conservatory, Satie's music was always kind of like the "filler piece" on a recital.  Not that he wasn't a serious composer; he just wasn't someone who, in my mind, stuck out as someone whose music I should check out.  Hearing his music really opened up my ears.  It got me to thinking, not only would his music work as a jazz vehicle, but maybe he could have been a jazz musician at another period and time, because he was writing such different stuff than was going on at the time.  He was also very interested in poetry and art, and that period in history was sort of a great time for artists, because they would get together, talk about their art, and inspire each other.

Tafuri: A lot of "cross-disciplinary" interaction going on.

Willis: It's something you don't really see nowadays.  I think that today, art is pretty compartmentalized.

Tafuri: You do?

Willis: Yeah, kinda.

Tafuri: You mean art or "The Arts?"

Willis: Yeah, the arts in general.

Tafuri: Why do you think that is?

Willis: I don't know.  I think that, with all the technology we have, we have even more of an opportunity to interact via the Internet and sort of travel to anywhere in the world you want.  I don't see why there isn't more collaboration going on.

Tafuri: This record is very eclectic; there are a lot of things going on it.  Also, I found it very interesting that there's a whole quantum physics sub-theme going on in it, because that was something you got into.

Willis: It sounds kind of silly, but I got to thinking, ‘Wouldn't it be amazing to travel through time to meet up with — or just experience — what was going on in Paris in the 1890s.'

Tafuri: I hope I'm not taking it too literally, but was this album — in some way — an exploration of that?

Willis: Yeah, it totally was.  I was constantly thinking, ‘Why am I writing this?  What is the point?  What's the direction?'

Tafuri: ‘Why are [you] writing a tune — or a set of tunes — for this album?'

Willis: Yes, exactly.  At the time, I had been reading that Wayne Shorter was into quantum physics and that he had done quite a bit of reading on quantum physics (and probably understands it way better than I do).  So I got to thinking, ‘Wouldn't it be amazing to go and hang out with Erik Satie and play over the top of his music while he's playing?' because his music lends itself so well to jazz.  So I thought, ‘I would like to write something that could have one foot back in that time period, but also be, you know, now,' sort of like "time travel."  Not that I'm totally into time travel, but to have one foot back in that period at the same time.  It's kind of like for me playing both oboe and saxophone.

Tafuri: Well, you grew up in a musical family, didn't you?  So you had a lot of old and new influences, I would imagine.

Willis: Yes, my grandfather was a violinist.  My father's a composer, trumpet player, and vibraphonist.  And both my brothers are musicians; my brother Jay is a piano player, and my brother Mike is a trombonist.  So, there always was jazz and classical and rock — and a little bit of world music — going on when I was growing up.  All those different experiences together brought me to this album.  Whereas my earlier albums were pretty much just saxophone (soprano or tenor) and in a little more (I hesitate to say) "straight-ahead" or "jazz" vein, in this album, I'm taking the blinders off and letting all those outside influences come into what I call "jazz."

Tafuri: Well, you play in some pretty diverse groups.  You play in John Hollenbeck's Large Ensemble which in and of itself is pretty multi-disciplinary; I mean, he, himself, works with people like choreographer Meredith Monk.  And then you play in Joe Phillip's Pulse ensemble which is a multiple-composer-fed, multi-influenced group.  Have you written for Pulse?

Willis: No, I haven't.  The idea behind that group is these six or seven composers write for this core of musicians.

Tafuri: There's some really interesting and different instrumentation in that group!

Willis: And I play a variety of instruments in that group, too: soprano [sax], flute, clarinet, and English horn or oboe.  Yeah, I'm constantly being asked to bring every instrument I own anyway.  So, I thought, ‘Now's the time to take the blinders off and bring all those different elements into this recording.'

Tafuri: You've known John Hollenbeck1 for a long time.

Willis: John and I have known each other since, I think, '85 — and Chuck MacKinnon,2 as well.  We were all in the McDonald's All-American — well, first it was the Marching Band, and then the Marching Band got pared down to eighteen or nineteen of us for the Big Band.  We were just kids playing "Malagueña" and Buddy Rich's arrangement of "West Side Story."

Tafuri: [Laughs.]  Where'd you guys play?

Willis: Well, we played for the Jerry Lewis Telethon on TV, which was kind of cool.  Because we did that,3 we ended up getting to Eastman4 a week late.  We missed the orientation, and I think we ended up getting there on the second day of school; classes had already started.  We show up late, and they're like, "Who are these guys?" We showed up all sunburned, and we thought we were hot shit.

Tafuri: And you met MacKinnon there, too?

Willis: Yeah, I think he was from Santa Barbara.  I've known Chuck for a long time.  He's a great person and great musician.  I think Chuck and I play very well together; we play off of each other very well, which is important when two horn players are fronting a band.

Tafuri: So, you've worked together quite a bit over the years.

Willis: I've played in his band a little bit, and he plays in my band ... and we played in different bands together.  John and I, we've been playing together a lot since school.  I play in his bands, he plays in my bands.

Tafuri: Well, your contribution on A Blessing adds such a different voice to the Large Ensemble, playing English horn, which is not something one usually hears in a big band setting.

Willis: Yeah, yeah.  I've got to say that I was a little reluctant, early on, to use double reeds in a jazz setting, because maybe I wasn't ready for it or didn't know how it would fit.  But, when you have a composer who's as strong and determined as John is, I trusted him and then though, ‘You know what?  It works!'  [Chuckles.]

Tafuri: And you played those instruments also in Michael Brecker's —

Willis: Yes, "Quindectet."  We did a tour of Japan and did a little bit in the US, played in New York.  There should be, hopefully, a DVD of it coming out in the not-to-distant future.  They recorded it all High Definition, and it's actually already run in Japan; it was on TV.  Bob Sheppard has a copy of it that he's supposed to be sending me.  [Laughs.]

Tafuri: Isn't it kind of hard to mic5 an English horn?  I would image it is...

Willis: It is.  It's very difficult, and those were obstacles that I'd overcome previously.  The English horn doesn't play as loudly as the oboe and, playing double reeds in a jazz setting where the other instruments are playing pretty loudly, to be able to match that intensity, I had to figure out a few things and change around some equipment.  But I've been a big fan of Paul McCandless for years, so listening to his music a lot has taught me a great deal.  I couldn't go into playing jazz double reeds with the same knowledge I had been given from my classical teachers; the sound had to be a lot louder sound and, technique-wise, I had to change around some things to make that music work.

Tafuri: Because the English horn has such a "round" sound; it doesn't have such a "pointy" sound.  To me, it's kind of like the difference between, almost, a trumpet and a flugelhorn.

Willis: Yeah.

Tafuri: The flugelhorn has a "round" kind of sound to it.

Willis: That's a good analogy.  Recording it, you don't have to worry about those things but, in a live playing situation, you do.  So, I've messed around with a lot of different kinds of mics and making sure I'm not too close to the drums.  [Chuckles.]

Tafuri: You were mentioning that you and John went to Eastman.  What do you think you got out of studying at Eastman?

Willis: The opportunity to study classical music and jazz with equal intensity was really valuable to me.

Tafuri: Because you weren't constrained by your instructor...

Willis: Yes, because I had the privilege to study with Richard Kilmer, and he was very open-minded.  He actually played the baritone saxophone, I believe, in the army, so he was a "closet saxophonist."  He was totally into the idea that I would be practicing jazz with the same intensity as classical music, so I had his blessing to go ahead and do whatever I wanted — and that worked for me.  Of course, I think a few of my other teachers were like, "Well, why would anyone do that?"

Tafuri: "Why would anyone try to play an instrument like that instead of a saxophone?"

Willis: "Why would anyone work twice as hard, as that?"  Yeah, the saxophonists are like, "Why're you playing the oboe?" and the oboists are like, "Why're you playing the saxophone?"

Tafuri: [Laughs.]

Willis: It was kind of an "interesting" thing.

Tafuri: [Still laughing.]  Did you study composition, too?

Willis: I studied a little bit of "informal" jazz composition; it wasn't "composition," per se.  I did study jazz composition with Bill Dobbins and arranging with Ray Wright.  I learned a great deal of stuff from those two gentlemen.  That whole experience was kind of a springboard to where I am today.  In a lot of other music schools, you couldn't study both things.  At the time, it just wasn't accepted to do that.

Tafuri: But you actually had to take graduate courses, at that time, to do that, right?

Willis: At the time, there was no undergrad jazz program, so you're sitting in a class taking jazz arranging with graduates.  As a freshman or sophomore, that's pretty intimidating.

Tafuri: Well, that's gotta ratchet you up a couple of notches, right there.  I'd imagine, you gotta really step up to the plate.

Willis: It makes you work harder, and then you find that you can pull it off.  [Chuckles.]

Tafuri: It seems like a lot of those things — the classical training, the jazz playing, the composition and arranging studies — really come together on Velvet Gentlemen.  It's a record that's eclectic, but it's not — I don't know — "schizophrenic,"  like a lot of the submissions I get from so many submissions from artists.  Lots of times, I think it's "everything-but-the-kitchen-sink," because they're first recordings by these people, and they're trying to impress you with everything they can play.  Your recording has a real maturity; it's eclectic, but it all "fits together" really well.  Maybe it had something to do with some of the different compositional techniques I remember you telling me about.

Willis: One thing I used is "serialism."  Composers like Milton Babbitt and Alban Berg many times would take their motific structure and retrograde it or invert it or do a retrograde-inversion.  I thought that, rather than writing backgrounds that were "pads" of whatever mix of instruments, I'd make the backgrounds be still part of the composition, so there'd be a different way of looking at the melody.  There are a couple of times when I have two oboes and an English horn playing three different lines, and they will cross ranges so that, by the end of the line, the English horn is playing the melody, and it's up higher than the oboe.

Tafuri: It's like a "voice crossing" thing.

Willis: Totally.  Using different combinations of instruments was another thing I was experimenting with: odd combinations with the Chinese suona,6 the Armenian duduk, and the Western instruments — the oboe and the English horn.  I thought, ‘There's no other place that I'd dare to have those sounds together.'  [Laughs.]

Tafuri: And I love the fact that you have accordion on this record, because that's another kind of reed sound that you don't normally get out of a "reed instrument."

Willis: But a reed, nevertheless!  They seem related to me, somehow.  The oboe has kind of a naturally sad, longing sound to it and so does the accordion; to me, they seem to be a perfect match.

Tafuri: That's really cool; I never thought of it that way.  And you're hearing more of it in creative improvised music today.  It's definitely a different timbre, and it definitely fits in with a lot of the stuff on the record.

So, getting back to the record, you were talking about how you were into quantum physics and so on, and there are some titles that seem to reflect aspects of that.

Willis: "Closed Loops in Time" is a name that quantum physicists have for time travel.  The conversation starts out with Chuck doing loops of the trumpet, done with electronic effects using pedals.  There's this "waah-waaah-waaaah" looping effect, and then we're off on our time travel.

Tafuri: And you have "Door to Yesterday."

Willis: For me, if there's a door to yesterday, it's this tune.  That song reminds me of my childhood; it's a very simple, kind of childlike melody.  It reminded me of the music I grew up listening to in the '70s.  You know, kind of "fusiony," but still jazz.  It's kind of "Pat Metheny-ish."

Tafuri: Well, I love Rhodes.

Willis: Yeah.

Tafuri: I have a friend of mine in Cincinnati who played Rhodes with the Lemon Pipers.  I don't know if he played it on "Green Tambourine," though; I think it was "Wurli" on that.  (He's got the gold record for "Green Tambourine" hanging on the wall in his house.

Willis: Wow, that's great!

Tafuri: Well, he has a suitcase Rhodes that I loved playing.  He said he's left it to me in his will.  It's classic, and it's a great sound.

Willis: I love the Rhodes, too, and Ron plays the Rhodes really well. 

Something else I want to talk about is "Place of Enlightenment."  When I was reading Zen and the Art of Archery

Tafuri: [Laughs.]

Willis: Yeah, I know, but those are the things I'm into.

Tafuri: [Still laughing.]  How many of those books are there, Dan?

Willis: [Chuckles.]  Yeah.  Well, the hall where the archers would go to practice was called "the place of enlightenment," and that's kind of where that title comes from because, as musicians and writers, we have that place where we go to clear our minds and get deeper into our music. 

Ahh, "3:10 Local" is kind of silly.  We recorded out in New Jersey, not far from a set of railroad tracks.  We were preparing to do another free improvisation, and I said to Kermit, "We have to hurry up, before the 3:10 local comes through," and he starts playing the bass line to "Great Expectations."   After the fact, I took that recording and, from it, composed all these Philip Glass-like loops over the top so that, at one point, there are four soprano saxophones playing a twisted-up version of the bass line — but, again, with retrograde and inversion.  I doubled with the bass clarinet, and two tenor saxophones are playing a very elongated version of the bass line, while there's a lot of "free" trumpet stuff going on.

Tafuri: That's cool.

Willis: One of the things that I should've mentioned that I didn't was about "I'm Not the Reverend."  It's sort of a silly story.  Not long after 9/11, I received two e-mails from people wanting to thank The Reverend Dan Willis, who lives in Chicago and who apparently is fairly well known (he has many recordings out), for the beautiful sermon he had given on Sunday, about how it'd helped them cope with all of what was going on.  I was just blown away, so I had to write these people back and explain to them that "I'm not The Reverend."  It was amazing.  I don't know how they got my e-mail or confused my e-mail address with that of The Reverend Dan Willis.

Tafuri: Well, you have, don't you?

Willis: Well, apparently, that's how they got me.

Tafuri: Google, man.  Google.

Willis: So, that is my post-9/11 composition.

Tafuri: And then there are those three pieces on the recording that, I guess, were part of a longer free improv that you split up into three tracks.

Willis: Yes.  We had done one very long free improvisation and, to me, it could be very easily divided into three different movements, so I made those interludes between the longer compositions.  The thing that struck me about the improvisation is that all these gentlemen were able to improvise in a vein in keeping with all the other compositions on the CD.  I thought, ‘We gotta use this; it's just too good.'

Tafuri: So the improv was something you did after you were finished recording?

Willis: Yeah.  We had been recording all day, and that was the very last thing that we did.

Tafuri: I think it's significant that you're writing compositions that stay in peoples' ears enough so that they really become vehicles to improvisation.  That's a testament to your writing.

Willis: And, for me, that's what composing and improvising really should be — one and the same — and the composition should really be a springboard to the improvisation ... if everything goes right.

Tafuri: I guess I gotta ask you one more question, because you talked about time travel.  The kind of time travel you've been talking about has mostly been going back in time.

Willis: Yes, going back in time.

Tafuri: So, here's the deal:  You have the opportunity to put together any band of musicians, living or dead.  And I'm gonna get you out of something right now, by saying, "You can't include any of your current band members."

Willis: I can or I cannot?

Tafuri: You cannot.  I'm making this "rule," so you don't feel obliged to say, "Well, I'm playing with all the guys right now who I'd ... yada yada yada."

Willis: Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.

Tafuri: Let's put it this way: Let's say you have to stick to people who are no longer with us.  So, you have to go back to many periods of time and yank musicians from each of those periods to put together a band.

Willis: Wow.  That's an interesting question because, stylistically, I'm not too sure if gentlemen from earlier generations would appreciate the way we play now — being so eclectic as we tend to be.

Tafuri: Okay.

Willis: A famous Louis Armstrong quote is about what he said about be-bop: that it sounds like "Chinese music."

Tafuri: [Laughs.]

Willis: So, obviously, Louis wasn't going to evolve much past what he was doing at the time.  But, certainly Louis Armstrong was one of the greatest musicians ever.

Tafuri: Well, it's interesting to hear some of those Charlie Mingus tracks on Candid where he had guys both from the classic Ellington Band as well as people like Eric Dolphy and Booker Ervin and trumpeter Ted Curson — people from sort-of different musical eras.  But, anyway, the question still stands ... assuming they would all "get along and play nice together."

Willis: Well, Elvin Jones is kind of an easy one.

Tafuri: You never got to play with Elvin?

Willis: No, no.  That would have been amazing — I mean, just the energy that he had that was such a complement to Coltrane's music.  Hmm, let's see.  Well, Charlie Mingus.  God, yeah!  He'd be a good pick for a bass player.

[They both start laugh.]

Tafuri: Yeah.  Not too shoddy.

Willis: But that would be a pretty strange band, though, now that I'm thinking about it.

Tafuri: Just for fun.  Well, you're the one who brought up time travel, so...

Willis: Um.  [Long pause.]

Tafuri: Who'd you have in the horn section?  You'd probably prefer to not have any other reeds on this one, huh?

Willis: Can I include myself?

Tafuri: Oh, yeah.  You're included.  That's the point.

Willis: [Laughs.]

Tafuri: I mean, maybe you really wouldn't want to have any other reed players.  You know, when you start throwing those idols in there...

Willis: Well, I would have to have a couple idols in there just to kick my ass.

Tafuri: [Laughs.]

Willis: You know, Stan Getz was just one of those phenomenal musicians who had an amazing voice [on saxophone] who could just do anything.  Gosh, who else?  (We need a trombone player.)  [Long pause, while making double tonguing sounds.]

Tafuri: Curtis Fuller.

Willis: Yeah, Curtis Fuller.  What a big-ass sound.

Tafuri: I'm hearing "Blue Trane" now.  [Starts singing the opening line of the tune.]

Willis: I know, I know.

Tafuri: Alright.  Well, you can get back to me on that.

Willis: Yeah.  I should probably put a little more thought into that.

Tafuri: Well, it was just a question that occurred to me while you were talking about time travel.

Willis: That's a good question.

Tafuri: Maybe you'd like to have Satie in the band.

Willis: Well, yeah, I dunno.

Tafuri: You started off by saying that if he was around today, maybe he would be a — for want of a better term — "creative improvised music musician."

Willis: What a great mind he was, because he invented and built this piano that was basically two upright pianos on top of each other, and one keyboard was hitting both harps, somehow.

Tafuri: Really?  That's wild.

Willis: But you gotta wonder about what kind of a piano player he was because, supposedly, his composition teachers were telling him that he should go into piano, and his piano teachers were telling him he should go into composition.  [Laughs.]

Tafuri: [Laughs.]  Lots of people have been there.  I mean, what did people say about Ornette?


[From another miscellaneous interview fragment, regarding the composition "Gentle Soul."]

Willis: I had an epiphany; it really struck me just how beautiful and simple and child-like the melody was.  More than a few times over the course of a month, it made me think of my older brother Timothy, who passed away in '85.  He had Down Syndrome and was a very gentle human being.  I just couldn't stop thinking about this melody and him, and how — through it — maybe he was trying to tell me something about not messing around with this tune.  I worked on making the melody my own, and that title describes him and how I feel about him.

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1 John Hollenbeck, who plays drums and percussion on Velvet Gentlemen, released a Grammy-nominated album on OmniTone, the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble: A Blessing (OmniTone 15209), for which he wrote all the compositions and arrangements.  [Back to interview]

2 Chuck MacKinnon plays trumpet and flugelhorn on Velvet Gentlemen. [Back to interview]

3 The central location for the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon, an annual Labor Day weekend event since 1966, is Las Vegas, which is where the McDonald's All-American High School Jazz Band played. [Back to interview]

4 The Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, considered by many to be one of the more "prestigious" conservatories of music in the US.  [Back to interview]

5 Short for "microphone."  [Back to interview]

6 A Chinese oboe, also sometimes known as a "laba"or "haidi," with a distinctive loud, high-pitched sound.  [Back to interview]

7 A long, recorder-like instrument made of apricot wood and in typically 28, 33, or 40 cm in length. It has 8 or 9 holes and 1 thumbhole which provide a range of one octave. The double reed, also known as ramish or yegheg in Armenian, is typically 9-14 cm. in length and is surrounded by a thin flexible wood binding that slides along the length of the reed.  [Back to interview]

8 As in Fender Rhodes, a brand of electric piano popularized starting in the mid '60s through early '80s in rock and fusion jazz music.  Excellent examples of music featuring "Rhodes" are on Steve Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life and Chick Corea and Return to Forever's Light as a Feather[Back to interview]

9 Short for "Wurlitzer," the piano company which also made a popular electric piano is the approximately the same era.  Probably the best-known examples of what the Wurlitzer electric piano sounded like are tracks by Ray Charles recorded in that period.  In fact, in The Blues Brothers movie, Charles plays a Southside Chicago pawn shop owner who specializes in electric instruments.  He "demonstrates" what key action is left in a Wurlitzer electric piano in the shop by ripping off a smoking version of "Shake a Tail Feather" that starts with solo Wurli.  [Back to interview]

10 A model of the Fender Rhodes piano produced in the early '70s was known as a "Suitcase Rhodes," because it was a two piece piano and speaker combination that could be hooked together and (at least, theoretically) carried like a suitcase, though the combo was so heavy it generally required two people to carry it.  [Back to interview]

11 Referring to Ron Oswanski, who plays Fender Rhodes piano (and accordion) on Velvet Gentlemen[Back to interview]

12 The actual title of the book Dan refers to is Zen in the Art of Archery[Back to interview]

13 Referring to books with titles starting with "Zen and the Art of," as in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.   [Back to interview]

14 Referring to Kermit Driscoll, who plays electric bass on Velvet Gentlemen[Back to interview]

15 Part of a "medley" track (one of four side-long tracks) entitled "Great Expectations/Mother Laranja" on Miles Davis's 1974 two-LP set Big Fun[Back to interview]


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