Interview with Tom Varner about Second Communion
(with Frank Tafuri)
[Anche, leggete un intervista a Tom Varner di Luigi Santosuosso]

Tom Varner

Tafuri: In many interviews, including the one we did a few years ago for Martian Heartache, you've been talking about how influential Don Cherry, and in particular Complete Communion, was to your musical Zeitgeist.  What was it about Cherry and his music and Complete Communion that connected with you and how did it affect you?

Varner: I guess the short answer is that Don Cherry's music, and Ornette's also, gave me a wonderful life-affirming sense of permission to go ahead and explore and discover, and it came at that time in my life when I (as we all do) needed that kind of acknowledgement.  Now, let me backtrack a little.

In high school (Millburn NJ), I had a great English teacher, Harold Friedlander, who was a hip jazz-loving sculptor who played Charlie Parker records as he read James Baldwin stories to us, and had us reading Alan Ginsberg and Carlos Fuentes.  He loaned me Clifford Brown records and also Ornette's This Is Our Music.  I was 16.  I liked it but wasn't too sure about it.  The next year, after a lot of listening in the meantime, two friends sat me down with headphones, and as a blindfold test, played me Ornette's "Moon Inhabitants" from The Art of the Improvisers.  It was one of those moments like "Where were you when they landed on the moon?"!  I think my life changed in two minutes.  It was like a hundred doors blowing open, a huge light bulb going off.  You know that heightened super-reality of a 17-year-old kid discovering something that will give him meaning for a lifetime?  Man, that was it.  I guess the freedom mixed with an inner musical logic, the feeling of the earth mixed with a joyous transcendence-boy, did that appeal to me.  Also, that uncanny interplay between Don and Ornette.  I was off and running, now that I think about it, from that moment on, trying to learn the jazz vocabulary while being aware of musical freedoms at our reach, and also trying to make my difficult instrument swing.

Now skip ahead about 2 or 3 years.  I was a transfer student at New England Conservatory, and my friend Jim Hartog loans me Complete Communion.  It was another light bulb going off for me.  This time hearing Don as a leader/composer, with such beautiful melodies, some jazzy, some folk music-like (whatever that means), strung together in a suite, with everyone following Don's cues perfectly, with such freedom and that deep swing from Ed Blackwell —that was another big inspirational step for me.  It really made me want to have my own band.  And now, all these years later, I just wanted to make some kind of musical "thank you" to Don.

Tafuri: This may sound silly, but did you feel any connection to the fact that Cherry was fundamentally a brass player, but really found ways as a performer and composer to transcend traditional means of playing —much like you do?

Varner: Absolutely, I felt a connection to that.  Not a silly question at all. The fact that Don played cornet and wasn't worrying about being a perfect trumpet player, that he wanted to communicate with beautiful melodies and not just "make the changes" had a big influence on a 20-year-old struggling jazz French hornist.  Of course, I wanted then and still want to be the best improvising hornist I can be, and that includes technique, but Don showed that technique is simply what you do with what you have, and that making music that touches our souls is what really matters.

Tafuri: Part of why I asked the question is that in a recent interview with trumpeter/composer Baikida Carroll, who was friends with Cherry, said that neither he nor Cherry was really interested in dealing with the traditional trumpet vocabulary, that they were always looking for something new.  Baikida called what Cherry used an "unspoken aesthetic," a concept he used to communicate and tell stories around the world, going from place to place, learning the music, then saying it on trumpet, not using the "traditional" vocabulary of the trumpet.  You integrate a lot of musics in your compositions and arrangements.  Is that "unspoken aesthetic" part of what you do, too?

Varner: I would say so.  Again, Complete Communion was a big influence, in terms of not being afraid to use contrasting materials from all over, and mix them up in interesting ways.  And I think, to continue Baikida's "unspoken aesthetic" idea, that Don took that very far, in a profound way.  In a recent anniversary book about the Bim Hus (the Amsterdam jazz club), the pianist Michael Cain had a wonderful entry.  He spoke of watching Don interact with Dewey Redman backstage, just talking and gesturing, and realizing that Don was always playing music in one way or another. That in fact, for Don, music was a moment to moment spiritual practice with no "onstage" or "offstage."  In the big picture I aim for that too, though I know I've got a long way to go!

Tafuri: What kinds of "contrasting materials" are your favorites to use, and where do you go for sources for those materials?

Varner: I think it is basically all the music that I have loved all my life.  Could be music from the 50's and 60's, like Clifford Brown, Miles, Sonny Rollins, Ornette and Don Cherry.  Or "classical" music that I love, like Berg and Stravinsky.  Or contemporaries—folks I know—such as Bobby Previte, Dave Douglas, Henry Threadgill, Ellery Eskelin, Marty Ehrlich, John Zorn.  Or Steve Lacy, who played and recorded with Don, who fits in all these groups!  Or "folk" music from places such as Tennessee, Mali, Armenia, or Switzerland.  One way or another I've combined them over the last 22 years.  And Don Cherry was a real pioneer in that approach, I think.  Many musics, and a trumpet in the middle as a "thing of beauty."

Tafuri: In a way, I know we've talked about this before, how much does playing French horn —considered by many to be one of the most unwieldy instruments, especially for jazz  —play into that aesthetic?

Varner: Very much so, for me.  Having discovered, at around age 17, that I could do something more with the French horn than just practice my etudes and hope to play in an orchestra, I had new worlds to discover—places my instrument had not really been to yet.  Julius Watkins showed that it could be done, but it was wide open.  I think Don's aesthetic let me see that it was possible to draw on the exciting "post-Ornette" world of the sixties, and still retain a sense of "deep melody," as Don did, and utilize my difficult instrument to its best potential.

I just reread something I said to Bob Blumenthal for a recent Boston Globe piece:  "Complete Communion —it had that explosive freshness of the post-Ornette avant-garde, plus this deep melodicism that appealed to me as a brass player.  Now that I think of it, that's been my modus operandi ever since I first heard it."  And Don himself, when asked in an interview about early trumpet influences, "I felt that the trumpet was a thing of beauty in jazz."  A thing of beauty—he didn't talk about cool, cooking, burning hard bop or free jazz—he just said a thing of beauty.  I love that, especially as a French horn player.

Tafuri: That's obviously an expression that resonates with you.  In what kinds of things do you find that "beauty" as in Cherry's "thing of beauty"?

Varner: Oh, all through Don's music, and many other places as well.  I guess it's where intimacy and musical directness meet. An emotional clarity that is never sappy or overbearing.  Don's playing all through Complete Communion, and his "African whisper singing" on the Horizon Brown Rice LP.  Ali Farka Toure from Mali.  Mahalia Jackson's cry.  Clifford Brown on a ballad.  And Emmy Lou Harris, too —or even Sinatra at his best! 

Tafuri: And there's a particularly linear approach Cherry had both to his tunes and his soloing, something that worked particularly for the "folk" aspect of his music, like the new folk music of Ornette, too.  "Watts '56" has that rollin', folksy line and feel to it.  And I even hear little licks of kid's tunes, like little nursery rhyme tunes.  What's behind that tune?

Varner: "Watts '56" is a "thinking about Don as a young man" tune.  I had read in that same interview how as a teenager Don was listening to Harry "Sweets" Edison, Miles, Clifford Brown, Dizzy, Chet Baker, Jack Sheldon, but that he really loved Fats Navarro.  And that he was playing Bird and Gerry Mulligan tunes with his buddies, including Billy Higgins.  Then in Watts in 1956, on a very hot day in a music store, he met Ornette Coleman.  My first inception for the tune was an LA "cool jazz" vibe, but I think it had a mind of its own!  Still, it does go from a children's song quality to a cool jazz feel, to an Ornette/Don Cherry free tonality, especially in the coda, with solos that begin in A flat but could go anywhere.  That was just the mood of the moment.

Tafuri: Another one of your originals on Second Communion is "Don's Big View."  What is the "big view," and how did it affect others?

Varner: I guess this was my "looking at the totality of Don's life" tune.  I know this sounds really corny, but I keep picturing Don flying over the world, and not in an airplane!  Flying over Oklahoma, over LA, over the East Village, over Sweden, over Morocco, over Amsterdam, over West Africa, over China, over Oakland, over Spain.  Flying with the good and the bad.  We start with a collection of my favorite Don phrases, some "real," some imagined, and then simply follow a big arc.  As for the guitar, well, I think of it as a "flying" instrument, and remember, Don worked with Lou Reed as well as Ornette!  Listeners might hear other hints of their favorite Don Cherry phrases in the different sections.  That big view included different musics from all over the world and a broader way to even think about music—an opening up of a vista—and that has enriched all of us who have come in contact with Don and his music.

Tafuri: Speaking of coming in contact with Don and his music, what was it like to have Cameron Brown on this CD —someone who actually worked with Cherry around the period he made Complete Communion and what kinds of "contributions" did he make to the recording?

Varner: I met Don a couple of times—I saw him at the old Kitchen, and played with him in a Karl Berger large ensemble concert in the late 70's—but I didn't really know him.  Cameron certainly did.  In 1964 and '65, Don had that great band in Europe with Gato Barbieri, Karl Berger, J F  Jenny-Clark, and Aldo Romano —each man from a different country.  Don was asked back to NYC by Blue Note to record Complete Communion in December '65, bringing Gato with him, and using Ed Blackwell and Henry Grimes for the recording.  When he went back to Europe to play with the quintet in '66, a 19-year-old Cameron Brown was a sub for Jenny-Clark on several gigs, playing Complete Communion and many other Don tunes.  Cameron played with Don many times in later years, also.  So it was wonderful for Cameron to be his own "living link" between 1966 and 2000!  He had a blast doing it.  Cameron was very helpful—besides being a great person and an incredibly solid and swinging bassist, he loaned me original music in Don's hand, and shared his first-hand ideas for the music.  I also transcribed the whole work myself —Don's handwriting was rough!  Remember, Don's European band of '64-'66 led to Complete Communion —in this band they played Don's tunes, Ornette tunes, folk songs, and even Jobim tunes, and Don would just play them in an uninterrupted suite, and the band would have to move with Don and follow along.  Complete Communion is a suite of five of Don's tunes, with interludes, and a reprise of the beginning.  Cameron told me that, at rehearsals, Don would just play the tunes, they would follow, and that was it.  I'm sure he played it differently each time.  The Europe band recorded before Complete Communion date, in April '65, and that became Togetherness, on the Italian Durium label, later reissued as Gato Barbieri & Don Cherry, on Inner City.  It's a fascinating document.

Tafuri: And, while we're on the topic of people on the album, wasn't it cool to have Matt Wilson on drums?  As I've been sitting listening to the record over and over again, I've marveled at Matt's work.  I think he's one of the most melodic —maybe the most melodic —drummer on the big scene today, like Ed Blackwell was melodic.  And innovative...

Varner: Absolutely.  Thinking about Blackwell, I knew Matt would be my first choice for this project.  What joy and humor, and a deep melodic swing, Matt brings to any musical situation.  He picked it all up immediately, had some great suggestion for "Don's Big View," and saved the day for "Leaving Malaga."  In that tune I'm thinking about Don's death and the deaths of all loved ones.  By adding that little extra percussion motif at the very end, Matt prevented the take from turning into an overly serious "sadness-fest " and kicked it into a deeper place, a much more profound meditation.

Tafuri: Tony Malaby, who almost always knocks me out anyway, really kills on this record.  For example, the new harmonies and revoicings he states on that little repeating bridge theme in "Complete Communion" is amazing.  There are lots of other examples, too...

Varner: Tony is so great.  He's a real musical grown-up, his own person.  I knew that he would tear up the "Gato" position in our new look at Complete Communion, have fun with it and bring his own individual voice to the situation.  Tony knows his changes inside and out, and always brings a freshness so that the listener is not thinking "chord changes/not chord changes," but rather just hearing music.  Case in point:  I had thought that the first blowing section on the main "Complete Communion" theme was "free," but after transcribing it, I realized that they were playing on a set 24 bar form, and Cameron confirmed this.  It sounds so free on the original because Gato and Don knew it so well, they were just playing music, thinking of the melody and not worrying about that form.  Well, Tony brings that freshness also—a "human cry" rich tenor sound, grounded in tradition, but never afraid to take chances.  I'm very lucky to have him on this recording.  What a great guy, too. 

Tafuri: Of all the Cherry tunes you could have picked to round out Complete Communion —that is, the title track and "Elephantasy" —how did you come to choose "Cherryco"?

Varner: Well, besides Complete Communion and "Elephantasy," in which I only look at the first theme and interlude, I wanted to look at an earlier Don Cherry work.  "Cherryco" was recorded five years earlier, in 1960, though not released until '66, on Atlantic, as John Coltrane and Don Cherry: The Avant-garde.  (Though it was Don's date as a leader.)  "Cherryco" has a kind of cool, soft, witty mystery to me, and I thought it would work great when harmonized for three winds.  And Dave Ballou's cornet solo takes my breath away —that's one of my favorite moments in the whole project.  I also wanted a contrast in mood to some of the other pieces.  Perhaps the difference between 1960 and 1965?

[Anche, leggete un intervista a Tom Varner di Luigi Santosuosso]

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