Extraordinary interview with master arco jazzer, who’s also a conductor, composer and more
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
November 30, 2009
Terry Plumeri is a bass player, composer and conductor, extremely well versed in both classical and jazz. Lauded by the Washington Post, Fanfare Magzaine, Jazz Improv Magazine and allaboutjazz.com, Terry’s work seems to have no boundaries. He has recorded the Tchaikovsky Symphonies 4, 5 and 6 as conductor of the Moscow Philharmonic and has scored for dozens of films, including One False Move, Love Takes Wing and Stephen King’s Sometimes They Come Back. Plumeri has also performed with jazz greats Cannonball Adderley, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Quincy Jones and many others. Among the places where Terry has lectured on music include the Smithsonian Institute, Georgetown University, the Maryland Art Institute and the University of Southern California. As a bass player, he is known for the stellar arco technique he applies to his own unique style of jazz.
FBPO: What kind of musical upbringing did you have? What sequence of events led to your becoming a bass player, conductor and composer?
TP: I was raised by my maternal Scot-Irish/Apache grandmother, Elva Dane Oakley, who listened to the Grand Ole Opry and attended church regularly. The first music I remember was her singing “Red River Valley” and other folk songs in a traditional Scot-Irish unaccompanied fashion, or country music from musicians like Porter Wagner, Ernest Tubb and Tennessee Ernie Ford, or hymnals which I heard in the church every Sunday.
Another one of my most memorable musical events as a child was the first time I heard a symphony orchestra, during my first year in school. I heard the “March Slav Overture” by Tchaikovsky and can still remember how attracted I was to the dark drama of the main theme and how amazing the sound of the orchestra was to my ears.
Then, when I was 5, I was with a family member at the neighborhood beer joint and I recall being mesmerized by the honky-tonk piano player there. I still remember the lively feeling in the room when he played, as well as the hypnotic motion of his fingers and the friendly and encouraging way he spoke to me, saying he thought my hands were very good for playing the piano.
Other than Elva Dane’s unaccompanied voice and the religious hymns, these last two experiences were probably the most compelling as a child and very possibly provided my greatest influences, given my long sustained involvement in classical and jazz music.
When I was 10, I had the opportunity to play the cornet in the school band. Playing cornet was very natural to me, and very quickly, in a matter of a few short weeks, I surprised myself at what I could produce on the horn. It felt so natural, it seemed as though I had played the instrument previously. When I got a little older, the remembrance of that experience made me seriously consider the possibility of past lives. Six months after beginning the cornet, I fell while running up some cement stairs and took a stair in the mouth, resulting in the breaking of my front teeth about half way off. There was no money for the dentist to repair my teeth, so from that point on, playing the trumpet was always physically uncomfortable. This led to my changing to the lower brass instruments such as baritone horn and eventually the tuba. As the first tuba in my high school concert band, I was given first choice at playing a new string bass the school had just purchased.
From that moment, life became very different. I immediately felt as though I had found myself, especially when I bowed the bass. Since my first time drawing the bow across the string, I was intrigued by the unusualness of the sound I made. As strange as it sounded to my ears, I could not get enough of it. Endless hours of bowing the bass always left me wanting more. I very quickly realized that the journey was infinite, which was very appealing to me.
Another appealing element about the acoustic bass was its ability to express itself in two completely different instrumental colors: a percussive drumming flavor, pizzicato, and a lyrical sustaining voice, arco. The combination of the two made the instrument a very interesting friend. At a moment’s notice, I could completely reverse the color of the instrument’s expressive voice. As a bass player, it was as if I could be a drummer one moment and a singing voice, the next. This duality of the bass is very possibly the director of my life path as a musician. The pizzicato drumming became the door to jazz and the singing sustain of the bow became the door to the symphony orchestra.
Not long after high school, I was fortunate to receive a scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music, which led me to Robert Brennand, my teacher, who also was Ron Carter’s teacher. At the time, Brennand was the principal bassist of the New York Philharmonic and one of two bass instructors for the Manhattan School. He was not only the greatest bowing bassist I have heard in my lifetime, he was also one of the most encouraging individuals I have ever encountered. Not only was he a master of the technical knowledge of bass playing, with absolute clarity at conveying it to the student, but he was also the greatest friend in his ability to always send you home believing in yourself and ready to tackle the seemingly insurmountable problems of expressing yourself on the double bass. There is no doubt that he was truly one of the great gifts of my entire life in his ability to set me free on the road which I love so deeply. For this, I am eternally grateful to the Supreme Being for such an ultimate gift.
FBPO: Your education and professional training read like that of someone well steeped in classical music. You’ve conducted Tchaikovsky symphonies, scored dozens of films and lectured at major universities throughout the country. In addition, though, you’ve performed with Cannonball Adderley, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Woody Herman and many other jazz luminaries. How do you think of yourself, musically?
TP: I never let the broad array of flavors in which music chooses to express itself scare me away from jumping in and giving it a try. I love any kind of music, as long as it comes from the heart and is done out of love. Every genre has its own beauty, so to put aside any style just because one’s experience does not include that particular musical vocabulary is a limitation. Conducting Tchaikovsky with the Moscow Philharmonic, improvising with Herbie Hancock and sitting for months writing “The Pride of Baltimore,” are all unified by music itself.
If you are fortunate enough to find your point of self-expression, music allows you into the room. Where you choose to sit is not important. What’s important is that you express, and that you express with love. I am just very grateful that music has allowed me to sit in more than one chair. I love playing solo, unaccompanied acoustic bass. I love playing electric bass in a rhythm and blues band, especially if it has horns. I loved accompanying Roberta Flack during the years we worked together and all that I learned from hearing her voice regularly while playing with musicians like Eric Gale, who I sat beside and had the good fortune to hear on a nightly basis. I love playing in a jazz band, whether it’s bebop, late sixties “Miles” style or freely improvised and spontaneously composed. I love playing in a jazz band whether I am the featured soloist or when I am laying down a groove under a burning tenor or trumpet solo.
I also loved playing acoustic bass in the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, which allowed me a serious amount of time inside the great musical minds of classical music. I love conducting the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra when the burn is on in a Tchaikovsky symphony. I love conducting the Moscow Philharmonic when the burn is on with one of my compositions, like “The Pride of Baltimore.” I love the feeling of unity of mind you receive when you have been composing for weeks or months on the same piece. I love writing for a small ensemble like flute and piano. I love writing for a large ensemble like full orchestra and chorus. I love the role of psychological colorist you give to the visual when you write music for film.
It is all musical thought and action for me. Each displays itself in a different setting with different spices than the other, but the essence comes from the same central voice.
FBPO: Your trademark as a jazz player seems to be your arco playing and soloing. Can I assume that’s because you started as a classical player before you discovered jazz?
TP: My beginning on the bass at age 16 pretty much encompassed simultaneous high school concert band, large and small jazz bands, latin bands in the Cuban style, rhythm and blues bands on the electric bass and playing in the local community orchestra. My reason for focusing on the bow is that it was, for my ears, the most expressive sound I could get out of the bass. Plus, having a Sicilian, Scot-Irish, Apache ethnic background, I needed to express.
The beauty of bowing the bass, or any stringed instrument, is its ability to sustain like a voice. And probably, in the beginning, though it was not something I was conscious of, it very possibly came from my experience as a trumpet player or from listening to Elva Dane sing solo.
Please understand I am also a serious student of the pizzicato bass. Most every day I work on improving my pizzicato playing. It’s just that my most prominent voice on the bass is the sound that comes from bowing the instrument. It is the sound I love making the most.
FBPO: Over time, we’ve heard bass players like Paul Chambers, Eddie Gomez, Stanley Clarke and others use the bow, but I can’t think of anyone who’s ever applied arco playing to jazz the way that you’ve done it. Your Blue In Green album in particular is tremendously innovative in that you use the bow for all the melodies and all the solos. Would you comment a little more on this unique approach you take toward playing jazz bass?
TP: The sound I make with the bowed acoustic bass is my voice in jazz. That is how I have seen or heard myself since the age of 19 or 20, even though it may not have been evident to the exterior world. So, to record an album with the bowed voice in the lead, as well as solos played on the bow, was no different for me than a tenor player, trumpeter or pianist playing the heads of the tunes and then soloing with the same instrumental color. It’s something I have been doing since I was 19. I just waited until I felt my chops were acceptable to my ears before presenting it to the world.
How did I arrive there is terms of my influences? The same band director who offered me the opportunity of playing the acoustic bass, Robert Price, a very influential musician in my life, told me of a bass player he heard once who bowed the heads to popular songs of the day. A light went off and I translated this concept into bowing the heads on jazz tunes, very possibly because I had not so long before been involved with a melody instrument, so the approach seemed accessible to me. This, accompanied by the fact that when I first heard Paul Chambers, doors opened and I knew exactly what I should be doing in jazz. Paul immediately showed you that the bass had two distinct voices, both of which were acceptable in jazz. I loved Miles’ band of that period and Paul being such a strong element of that unit gave me a clear picture of which direction I would take as a bass player.
The next education came from falling in love with the Bill Evans Trio when Scott LaFaro was the bassist. Scott showed you there was a whole other way of playing time in a jazz band. He also stretched the boundaries of the pizzicato side of the instrument to the point of giving you something to strive for. After Scott, there was Richard Davis, who suddenly emerged with an instrumental color and pitch flexibility like no one else and played with an energy that once again brought the bass to the front of the jazz band.
By that point, my study of composition, my love of the playing of John Coltrane and the emergence of my own voice began to take me away from my double bass influences, although I have always appreciated the lyrical beauty in the playing of Eddie Gomez. Once Gene Perla called Eddie, George Mraz and me to record an album which focused on bowed bass solos. So there we were, the three of us, standing at the mic together like three tenors, sawing away! It has always been a great memory.
Thank you for your appreciation of my work on Blue In Green. Playing the bass in that fashion has always had a special place in my musical life, and on Blue In Green, I was fortunate to be able to document a little of that, thanks to the help of David Goldblatt andJoe La Barbera, who are masters of the difficult job of accompanying an instrument which is so easy to cover.
FBPO: What kind of experience did you have studying with Antal Dorati? I remember when he was the conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. I don’t think people thought of him as “an easygoing fellow!”
TP: Dorati, as a teacher, and as a conductor under whom I played many times, was very encouraging and inspiring. He was all business, but you always knew that was a result of his deep commitment to creating high-level music. He had a great ability to hear scores without having to go to the piano or referring to a recording of what you had written. His connection to Bela Bartok, having been a student of Bartok’s, was also something that fed me greatly, since Bartok was my greatest compositional inspiration and one of my major influences as a composer.
FBPO: As a conductor who’s also a bass player, do people ever compare you to Koussevitzky?
TP: Surprisingly enough, it is not something I have heard from anyone, although it is a completely logical association. It is not something I have tried to cultivate, nor have I given it any conscious thought. Since you mention it, though, it is kind of strange that Koussevitzky was a Russian bassist who composed and conducted in America, and I am an American bassist who composes and conducts in Russia!
Although I have always appreciated Koussevitzky’s bass writing, and certainly appreciate his commissioning of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, he is not someone who has consciously influenced me musically. Although, I must say, on a subliminal level, as bass players who conduct, I’m sure we’re connected. Real conducting is a tough job and is very similar to the kind of commitment and responsibility a great jazz bass player takes when he or she holds down the fort while everyone else stretches. Playing the bass, whether it’s in a symphony orchestra or a jazz band, large or small, is great training for conducting. The conductor is the time keeper. So, when you step up to conduct for the first time as a bass player, you are in familiar territory. The orchestra needs a groove just as a jazz band does. And believe me, the orchestra musicians are very well aware when it’s there, as well as when it’s not.
FBPO: Talk a little about your approach to classical music versus jazz. The styles are so dissimilar and, let’s face it, you’re dealing with two very different “breeds” of people!
TP: For my ears, I have never focused on the differences. Rather, I have focused on the similar qualities and points of unity possessed by both styles. This way of thinking has given me the freedom to move back and forth between the two genres. It’s very true that there are “two very different breeds of people.” In the beginning, I was more aware of this. Now, it never crosses my mind. If I were playing in the orchestra as I have done in the past, I would be more involved with the transition between the two musical flavors. But composing and conducting for the orchestra is much more related to improvising music than playing in the orchestra.
FBPO: Tchaikovsky’s 4th is one of my favorite symphonies. Not only did I get to perform it with an orchestra, but I also used to love to play it on the electric bass, particularly the fourth movement. Do you ever go into jazz mode while conducting an orchestra, or classical mode while playing jazz?
TP: First let me say the 4th symphony of Tchaikovsky is also one of my favorite symphonic pieces and one of my first symphonic influences which took place during my high school years. The first movement is such a great journey of progressing intensities that no matter how many times you have experienced it, it never ceases to educate. And, the experience of conducting the Moscow Philharmonic through the journey of the 4th is one of the great musical experiences of my life.
When I conduct, I never think classical or jazz, I only think, “Sing the music and send my voice through my hands.” It’s the same when playing jazz. I think, “Sing the music and send my voice through my hands.”
FBPO: Do you still play electric bass at all?
TP: Yes I do. I began playing around the age of 16 in rhythm & blues bands in Florida. My reason for not focusing on the electric bass is, as I said previously, that I was completely taken by the expressiveness of the bow on the acoustic bass. It was my first love and still is. There is also the sound of the acoustic pizzicato which I personally prefer because of its warmth, pitch flexibility and percussive qualities.
I have a 1959 Fender Precision, which I bought in 1961. This bass has a modified fretless neck and, in recent years, I have found myself playing it regularly, mostly, unamplified and late at night, when I want to practice and it is too late to make the sounds I make on the acoustic bass or the piano. I very much appreciate this instrument in that it allows me to exercise the motion of my hands and has certainly influenced my pizzicato technique on the acoustic bass.
Even though I do not play electric bass in public, my appreciation goes well beyond my late-night relationship. During one of the years of working with Roberta Flack back in 1972, Roberta hired two bass players for all the gigs. There was acoustic bass pizzicato for the ballads, like “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” and electric bass for all the funk and rhythm tunes, combined with bowed bass, processed through a wah-wah pedal, kind of like a horn. During that period, I had the good fortune to share the bass voice with Jerry Jemmott, in the early part of the year, and Chuck Rainey in the latter part of the year. Obviously, it was a real treat and a serious electric bass education to hear two such great masters of the instrument on a regular basis. I have always been appreciative of Roberta for having probably the only pop band in history, which had two bass players, at least up until that time.
FBPO: Even as a young boy growing up, I remember noticing the pizzicato upright bass on “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Was that you?
TP: The recording of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” is from Roberta’s First Take album and was made before I knew or played with Roberta. I played on Roberta’s Chapter Two, Killing Me Softly and Quiet Fire albums and wrote the song “Conversation Love” on the Killing Me Softly album. My favorite track I recorded with Roberta is on the Chapter Two recording and is called “Just Like A Woman.”
FBPO: Your albums cut a wide swath across different styles of music, from jazz to classical to films. Blue in Green, for example, is very different from He Who Lives in Many Places, which, in turn, is different from Water Garden. It seems as though you want to capture a particular theme with each new project. Is that right?
TP: I have always thought of a record album as a documentation of where your musical mind is at that point in time. Each recording which I have been fortunate enough to display, has been a journey of the period of its documentation. For example, He Who Lives In Many Places was a “waking up” for me. It was my debut album as a jazz artist and, even though it is a beginning display of the voice of Terry Plumeri, it still shows an influence of the music of Miles of the late sixties, whom I loved greatly.
Water Garden was recorded six years later and came at a time when my individual voice was a little more developed. It also came during the period when I was working with the National Symphony in Washington, DC, and when I was beginning to come of age as a composer. As a result, I felt the need to express myself with a string quintet in addition to the written jazz tunes of the recording. This manifested itself in a piece for string quintet and two guitars, “Song For Laura Rose,” featuring John Abercrombie and Ralph Towner, as well as “Two Poems For Dance,” which were completely written out and featured the National Symphony String Quintet.
Between Water Garden and Blue In Green, I got lost in the world of writing film scores. Otherwise there would probably be a good bit more jazz albums under my name. That period began in 1981 and went on until the late ’90s, when I began to get back to the acoustic bass. Writing orchestral scores is extremely time consuming. You can very easily work for three days or more on one minute of music and still wish you had more time. That, combined with the unreasonable deadlines given you as a composer has a way of dominating your life. I have experienced film deadlines of having to write as much as an hour of music for large orchestra in as little as 8 days. There were literally weeks upon weeks in which the bass sat in the corner, untouched, in a small house I had over looking the Pacific. A house in which I wrote the music to forty-three films, in seven years.
And then, sometime around 1997, I woke up and said, “I’m a player. I love to play. I need to play. I’m going to play again.” And so, I began the road back to finger dexterity and expressiveness with my hands and voice, rather than my pencil and voice. This renewed interest in the love of playing the bass came of age in 2004 when the opportunity to do Blue In Green came about. Playing heads of standards, then soloing on them with the bow, was something I had been doing since I was 19. And never having documented this part of myself as a musician, it seemed like the proper time. And, since my love of the trio music of Bill Evans is a dominating musical influence since I was 19 or 20, I chose that setting.
Recording a jazz album exercises the composer in you. For me, it has been natural to approach this documentation of my musical mind as its own kind of composition, complete with its own unique color.
FBPO: You’ve already accomplished so much in your career. What lies ahead for Terry Plumeri? What else would you like to achieve that you haven’t done yet?
TP: I have just begun a series of four DVDs as conductor/composer of The Moscow Philharmonic, the first of which will be released next spring. I am very much looking forward to the preparation and filming of the others, as well. There is also a new release of five of my chamber pieces called Romance for Clarinet, Strings and Harp. This is the first in a series which features my chamber music. I am already working on the next of the group. The Blue In Green album is from the fall of 2004. The intention at the time was to record at least two more CDs with that trio, so it is certainly time to fulfill that desire. And, last but not least, there is the two-volume textbook on composition which I have been writing and is on the list to complete sometime soon.
FBPO: What types of things do you like to do that aren’t necessarily musically oriented?
TP: Truthfully, there is hardly anything I do which is not related to music. Even my photography seems to be musically related. But, when there is a moment and a chance to get away, I love spending time in remote nature and sailing on open water. The two are very related in providing a much-needed escape from the tight, rigid and chaotic experience that civilization bombards us with daily.
In conclusion, Jon, I would like to say thank you for being such a hero to all of us bass players by creating such a great forum for the bass. I’m sure it can do nothing but improve the standard of playing for all.
You’ll also want to check out this YouTube video of Terry’s fabulous arco rendition of Coltrane’s “Lonnie’s Lament.”