T Lavitz: Back to School
“ ...there really are exceptional musicians out there; it's unfortunate that we have to always think about how big is this guy's name to put him on a record. It's not right. ”
Pianist/keyboardist T Lavitz's School of the Arts (Magnatude, 2007) brings together guitarists Steve Morse and Frank Gambale, drummer Dave Weckl, bassist John Patitucci and violinist Jerry Goodman. It's a mouth-watering line-up which produces some real sparks, with its exhilarating unison playing and virtuoso performances.
Where School of the Arts marks a departure from Lavitz's recorded output so far is that this is an all-acoustic affair. Imagine a hybrid of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the Chick Corea Electric Band and the Dixie Dregs, unplugged, and you may get an idea of the music on offer.
T Lavitz talks about this album with AAJ's Ian Patterson, and recalls close encounters with the Grateful Dead, mega-bands in the school cafeteria and more.
All About Jazz: This album, School of the Arts is a little different to stuff you've done before; how did it come about?
T Lavitz: I had an idea to do a session like [pianist] Chick Corea, Weather Report, Dixie Dregs, but acoustic. The guys at the label thought it was a good idea and we began kicking around ideas about which musicians might be good for the project.
AAJ: It's a really great group of musicians; did you know who you wanted from the outset?
TL: I knew [guitarist] Frank Gambale when he first came from Australia twenty years ago, and I did a little playing with him in Los Angeles when I lived there. And of course Steve Morse and Jerry Goodman and I played together in the Dixie Dregs. Maybe the label suggested Dave Weckl, or maybe Frank recommended him, I don't even remember. I've been very lucky to play with some of the greatest drummers. Someone said, "How about John Patitucci? and of course I said yes.
AAJ: It was an acoustic project from the beginning, so why does John Patitucci play electric bass on a couple of tracks?
TL: At the very beginning I said "all-acoustic, and then while I was writing the music I thought some of this might be difficult, and I love electric bass. The acoustic bass is so cumbersome; it's sort of hard to execute sometimes, unison lines and things like that. So I thought if it was all acoustic but there is an electric sound, it's not too heavy sounding. So it was sort of a natural progression at that point. John Patitucci suggested he play electric on this song and that song and I said OK.
AAJ: Your own playing on School of the Arts is very much in the high register of the piano and it reminds me in spirit of the style of [pianist] Bruce Hornsby; I wanted to ask you who has most influenced your playing, your approach to playing the piano?
TL: Oh boy! It's funny that you would mention Bruce Hornsby, because we actually studied together in school. I knew him since we were teenagers. I think it's coincidental but we both liked the same guys like [pianist] Keith Jarrett, and everyone loved Chick Corea. One of my all-time keyboard players for sure is Herbie Hancock and one of the coolest players is [keyboardist] Joe Zawinul, who unfortunately just passed away. But I don't know that it sounds like any of those guys. In a way, not that it sounds like him, but in a way it reminds me of Chick Corea. It's a different style for me to play all acoustic.
AAJ: On "Maybe Next Time I am reminded of the lyricism of Keith Jarrett, whom you've already mentioned, but also the more bluesy style of [pianist] Dr. John, at least that's the way I hear it. Would Dr, John have been an influence, for example?
TL: Definitely; although I didn't intentionally think of him, I used to play in a band with Paul Barrére, guitarist and singer of Little Feat, and I got very much into that New Orleans vibe. You know, there's a few licks, funky, bluesy, but also jazzy in a way; I didn't think of him but if I stop and think about it then yeah, he's in there for sure.
AAJ: One of the best things about School of the Arts is the playing of Jerry Goodman, who is really on fire on this album.
TL: You're not going to believe this but he doesn't even have a copy of it yet. I've even stayed at his house but I don't have the address to send him the CD. I think he'll be very pleased because many people have commented on his playing. But I don't even think he's heard it. I sent the CD to everyone involved because I want them to hear it because I'm very proud of the final result.
AAJ: For me the only downside is that he didn't play on more tracks.
TL: To tell you the truth, originally I thought it was going to be me and the Chick Corea electric band with Frank Gambale on the whole album, and maybe there would be a duet with me and Frank, or a solo piece on piano. But then it got behind schedule, and by April Frank said: "I've done five songs; I can't do any more until June or July. We were hoping to have it finished by then. I thought of Steve Morse for guitar and I was talking about it with the label: "What shall we do? Saxophone? What about Jerry Goodman? and so we asked him to do it. I hate to say he was an afterthought but...
AAJ: I was going to ask you if you had considered a saxophone at all because I can imagine a saxophone working very nicely in this music.
TL: I know, me too.
AAJ: Who would you have liked to play sax?
TL: Well, this is the thing. I knew [saxophonist] Michael Brecker casually and I asked him a couple of times over the years and do you know what he said? No [laughs]. But he said, "Only because you're asking me now and I can't do it now, but that doesn't mean never. I want you to ask me again because sometime I'm going to say yes.
Steve Morse, Joe Zawinul, Michael Brecker, [bassist] Jaco [Pastorius], [guitarist] Pat Metheny, the early Pat Metheny, these were my biggest influences, and of course [pianist] Herbie Hancock and all those great keyboard players. Michael Brecker was up there as one of my main people.
But there are a lot of great sax players out there. I've run into two sax players in the last few months who are amazing; one lives in New York City and one, believe it or not, lives in the country, in New Hampshire, up north, in the middle of nowhere. They're not name players but they are amazing. It makes me see that there really are exceptional musicians out there. It's unfortunate that we have to always think about how big is this guy's name to put him on a record. It's not right. In a perfect world you take whoever you like.
AAJ: In a perfect world. This album is a bit of a sonic jigsaw puzzle in the sense that bits were recorded here and bits were recorded there and then everything was brought together; don't you miss the old style of everyone being in the studio for three days or a week, and that atmosphere?
TL: The last word you said, atmosphere; I got to tell you, I used to dream about someday recording in a real studio and all that stuff. This was when I was a teenager. And then, when it finally happened, it was everything I dreamt about, because the atmosphere of sounding the best you can, because of the equipment, with other musicians coming together and the whole vibe, including the hanging out and the going out to dinner, whatever. So yeah, of course I miss that.
I'll tell you though, with the advent of all the technology, I'm the kind of guy who likes to work alone and it's done when I think it's as good as I can do the solo part. You know, when there's other people around you think you're holding people back. They both have their advantages.
AAJ: Let's talk about Steve Morse. He doesn't spare the horses on "On Fire and "Portrait, where his playing is just fantastic; you two go back almost thirty years to the Dixie Dregs, who have reformed sporadically and toured again. Are there any plans for the Dixie Dregs to record a new album?
TL: Well again the technology. I know that Steve uses the same software that I use and I want to say to him, because I know how much he likes to work at his own pace, "Why don't you send me some song ideas and let me learn them, and maybe put some demo keyboard parts via the internet, and then when we get together in the studio it'll go that much smoother because I'll know what I'm doing.
You know what? I would love it. There's been no talk of it because he's always traveling with Deep Purple.
AAJ: Steve was a brave guy for stepping into [guitarist] Ritchie Blackmore's shoes in Deep Purple. Talking hypothetically for a moment, if you had to step into the shoes of a pianist/keyboard player of a classic band, which band would you have liked to play in?
TL: Well, in the last twenty years say, I think I would have loved to play in a band like Little Feat, because those keyboard parts are just great and that's because of Billy Payne.
I loved when Chester Thompson was in Tower of Power, maybe just his influence for organ, that funky, two-handed style. I always thought that must be an incredible band to play in because they are so tight.
When I was fifteen I first heard Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and I remember thinking 'Wow! I wonder if some day I...? You know? And then when you see them live [keyboardist] Keith Emerson would be spread out like he was flying, one arm going this way and one that way and he'd be facing the audience with an intense kind of stare. I remember being a teenager and thinking, "OK, that's it. That's the coolest thing! As a keyboard player, you know, it was like all the guitar players did with people like [guitarists] Jimi Hendrix, or Jimmy Page, or Clapton. You know, Steve Morse told me that he saw the Mahavishnu Orchestra in the school cafeteria. Really! When he saw [guitarist] John McLaughlin he could tell he had a dream too, and that day changed his life.
AAJ: The school cafeteria? I never knew the Mahavishnu Orchestra had ever fallen on hard times.
TL: They were hired to play a concert at the university where we all went in Florida, Miami, and it was raining so they put it in the giant lunch room. You know, I used to see Jaco Pastorius play right there too. All these great people played there.
AAJ: You were lucky.
TL: Oh, Jaco was the bass teacher at the school. When I went to university [guitarist] Pat Metheny and Steve Morse; [bassists] Andy West and Mark Egan; [violinist] Allen Sloan, you know, the Dixie Dregs; Bruce Hornsby and Bruce Hornsby's band[drummer] John Molo and a couple of other guysthese were all the students and teachers.
AAJ: Quite an environment, no?
TL: It was really magical. I didn't know it at the time. I came out of high school and I didn't know that much, and I just assumed that this was how it was in every city. So it was a very magical time.
AAJ: When I asked you about what band you would have liked to play in I thought you might have gone for the Grateful Dead; you've obviously got a close affinity with their music, having recorded several albums of their songs.
TL: Do you know about my one day? I actually played with them one time. It was the last few days of August, or the first few days of September 1990; Brent Mydland, the keyboard player, had died and Bruce Hornsby of all people recommended me to them because he was going to play with them.
And there was a guy who I later became friends with, [keyboardist] Vince Welding, and I got auditioned the day after Vince Welding auditioned, so I did play with them for one day. They were shocked that their keyboard player had died and they talked to Bruce and he said he'd do it for a little while as a guest.
They said they needed to get somebody else too and my name came up. Bruce said: "Oh yeah, I know that guy from when we were younger. He'd be great. So they actually called me up and I went there, north of San Francisco where they had a place, you know, the limo and the whole nine yards.
I never get nervous, but I have to tell you I was nervous. There I was, just me and them in this rehearsal studio. The problem is my singing, which is non-existent. So it was fun while it lasted.
AAJ: You've done three albums of Grateful Dead music; is there another one in the pipeline at all?
TL: I have to tell you that we actually have a full, new album and it just needs to be mixed. We don't have a deal for it so we just put it on the back burner when [drummer] Rod [Morgenstein] and [guitarist] Jeff Pevar got busy again, because he plays a lot with Crosby, Stills and Nash. It's really good. It could be the best one because we really took our time with it.
AAJ: What Dead material are you visiting on this one?
TL: Do you know "Freeway Jam, by [guitarist] Jeff Beck? Well we did "Truckin', but we did it like that if that makes any sense. We did "Uncle John's Band it's really, really nice, sort of like Pat Metheny. Then I did "Friend of the Devil, with almost classical-type jazz piano and bass, and Rod plays a washboard. It's really so pretty and emotional. Really nice.
Now that you talk about it, it reminds me of how good it is. Why is it just sitting there?
AAJ: What's the difficulty with finding a label for that?
TL: I think it's just a matter of everybody getting together and deciding who's going to mix it, which engineer. Possibly on a similar label to School of the Arts, you know, an independent label. I'm sure they would give us enough to make it worthwhile to sign it over. I don't know what we're waiting for because we finished it in December, 2006.
AAJ: Talking about mixing, on School of the Arts you pay tribute to Wayne Starnes who mixes, masters and co-produces the album. How important was his role in the project?
TL: I have to tell you that I worked on that album for six months and at the end, except for drums, we knew every note, seriously, every note. He plays guitar also so he would say, "This bar, this beat, you play an F#, is that what you want there? I mean every freakin' note! It's a lot of notes, so he was integral.
With audio files you can actually cut and paste. If something needed to be a little tighter I would cut the other instruments, or cut the piano and move it a little bit. With audio you can do that now, not with MIDI. So we did all these intricate things, move after move after move, and we would update them; we started calling the songs by their title followed by their date, because every two or three days a song would change a little bit and to keep track of it was getting crazy.
Wayne was very organized and he has a very good ear because I think the fidelity is really good. And that's down to him.
AAJ: It really does sound tremendous. Do you have any plans to tour with this line-up to promote the album?
TL: Well again it's about scheduling. I didn't know how good it would come out. I thought it would be good but I never realized until it was done how good it was going to be. I really haven't been in touch with anybody. These guys travel so much, and they're going in three different directions.
What I would want to do is email them and see if there's a way to find a mutual time where there is a month or two of open time.
AAJ: It would be a tremendously exciting live event.
TL: Just learning that material would be exciting. I would love to have that pressure.
School of the Arts featuring T Lavitz, School of the Arts (Magnatude, 2007)
Dennis Chambers/Jeff Berlin/Dave Fiuczynski/T Lavitz, Boston T Party (Tone Center, 2006)
Jazz is Dead, Great Sky River (Zebra, 2001)
Dixie Dregs, Californian Screamin' (Zebra, 2000)
Jazz is Dead, Laughing Water (Zebra, 1999)
Jazz is Dead, Blue Light Rain (Zebra, 1998)
T Lavitz, Gossip (Wildcat, 1996)
Dixie Dregs, Full Circle (Capricorn, 1994)
Dixie Dregs, Bring 'Em Back Alive (Capricorn, 1992)
T Lavitz, Mood Swing (Nova, 1991)
T Lavitz and the Bad Habits, T Lavitz and the Bad Habits (Intima, 1989)
The Dregs, Off the Record (Ensoniq, 1988)
T Lavitz, From the West (Passort Jazz, 1987)
T Lavitz, Storyline (Passport Jazz)
T Lavitz, Extended Play (Macon, 1984)