Forty-five years after his first solo piano recording (Hubris, done at Tonstudio Bauer in Ludwigsburg, Germany for ECM Records with Manfred Eicher presiding), Brooklyn-born Richie Beirach returns to that intimate setting on Leaving for the German Jazzline label. A live concert recording from Château Fleur Cardinale in Saint-Etienne-de-Lisse, in the St. Emilion region near Bordeaux, France, this collection of well known jazz standards that the veteran pianist has played innumerable times over his 75 years finds him plumbing the depths of emotion, expression and romance in an exploratory and triumphant program. Performing on a 9-foot Steinway grand piano before a gathering of 120 people in a wine tasting room at the chateau, Beirach puts his own unique stamp on timeless standards like Miles Davis' “Nardis,” Thelonious Monk's “‘Round Midnight,” Wayne Shorter's “Footprints” and Leonard Bernstein's “Some Other Time" in a purely carte blanche approach. “When I’m playing, I’m completely blank in my mind,” he explained. “And that works the best for me because if I’m thinking, I’m judging, which means I’m not there in the moment. And the good thing about being 75 is that I’ve experienced enough so that when the recording is going on, I’m relaxed. The pressure calms me and focuses me, and I play better under pressure than I do in my own house. So those intellectual things and analytical things only mess up your flow. And the point of this solo concert at the château was to stay in the flow the whole time.”
He also strings some tunes together in unexpected ways, as on his medleys of “What Is This Thing Called Love?”/“Alone Together”/“Blue in Green” and “Spring Is Here”/“Maiden Voyage”/“Monk’s Dream”/“You Don’t Know What Love Is.”
And while Beirach makes ambitious use of reharmonization, rhythmic reinvention, counterpoint and motivic development throughout the stunning program, he is also mindful of incorporating the swing factor into his interpretations of these well known standards. As he said, “I am unabashedly a jazz pianist, I can swing, and I love it. And I think the people can feel that. A lot of guys play without the swing feel, and it’s still very good and beautiful. But there’s something about swinging that is a part of my musical makeup. And I don’t just allude to it, I highlight it. And I think it balances out a lot of the romantic things on the program. So I’m playing solo piano but also I’m a rhythmic player, I’m a rhythm section player. And my sense of rhythm is one of the things that distinguishes me.”
Born on May 23, 1947 in Brooklyn, New York, Beirach started playing the piano at the age of 5. From age 6 to age 18, he was given lessons by the pianist and composer James Palmieri. In the mid-‘60s, he entered the New York club scene, playing with such jazz icons as Freddie Hubbard and Lee Konitz while at the same time occasionally working as a longshoreman at the docks of New York. In 1967, he went to Boston to study at the Berklee College Of Music, where Keith Jarrett, Miroslav Vitous and John Abercrombie were enrolled as well. He returned to New York in 1968 and started a composition degree with Ludmilla Ulehla at the Manhattan School Of Music. Soon after, joined Stan Getz’s band, which also included bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette. In 1973, he joined Dave Liebman’s Lookout Farm, which also included bassist Frank Tusa and drummer Jeff Williams and tabla player Badal Roy. In 1976, release his debut as a leader, Eon on the ECM label. His first solo piano album, Hubris, was released in 1977. In 1981, Beirach and Leibman formed Quest with drummer Al Forster and bassist George Mraz. Later editions of the group included drummer Billy Hart and bassist Ron McClure (they recently had a reunion tour of Europe from Oct. 1 to November 30, 2022).
Quest recorded six albums before disbanding in 1991. Beirach subsequently worked with two different trios -- one with Mraz and Hart, another with bassist Dave Holland and drummer DeJohnette. His more recent collaborators include violinist Gregor Hübner, drummer Christian Scheuber and singer Laurie Antonioli. Now retired from his professorship at Leipzig Conservatory, founded in 1843 by the renowned German composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Beirach has been living since 2015 in Hessheim, Germany.
Also, some highly recommended reading: the recently published book “Ruminations & Reflections: The Musical Journey of Dave Liebman & Richie Beirach" (Cymbal Press). This expansive collection Q&A encounters between the two longtime friends and collaborators, with Kurt Renker, includes homages to their personal heroes Elvin Jones, Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Pete LaRoca, Bill Evans and John Coltrane as well as lively discussions about everything from playing stickball in the streets of Brooklyn, breaking into the NYC jazz scene in the 1960s, participating in the 1970s loft scene and giving their views of classical music, jazz education today, drugs, alcohol and late night hanging and their approaches to preparing for concerts and recordings. This book is totally illuminating!
Beirach was at home in Hessheim for this Zoom conversation.
Bill: Your new solo album, Leaving, is fantastic. You're drawing on all your powers as an improviser, as an interpreter of jazz standards on this live album. It's a beautiful summing up of what you've been doing all your career. I mean, you must've played "What is This Thing Called Love" and "On Green Dolphin Street" and "Nardis" hundreds of times over the years. Obviously, you're in love with these tunes. So in a way, it's very romantic that you're tackling these pieces again that have been a part of your life for so long.
Richie: It's a barometer for me to check myself out, like an ongoing diary. Also, I've not very often recorded a whole of CD of standards solo piano. Usually I have original material or a lot of free improv stuff or the stuff that I do with Lieb (longtime collaborator, saxophonist Dave Liebman). But I wanted to go back and play these tunes again, just solo piano in front of a live audience. And I was amazed at things that I found because, of course, all the free shit that I've done and all my original compositions have informed how I play them now. So they're changed them from the way I used to play them. I've been playing "On Green Dolphin Street" with Quest and Lieb and Stan Getz and Chet for forever. But when you play solo piano, it's a whole different world because you're the whole band. So I found some new things on those old tunes and I'm very happy with the way the concert came out. I was very inspired to play this amazing nine-foot Steinway in a French chateau wine tasting room in front of a hundred sophisticated, older, French connoisserus that love my music and love wine. It was like ideal. And the way I see it, I'm 75 now, so now's the time for those kinds of gigs. Because I struggled many years playing out of tune upright pianos at small clubs in the Village, so I feel very good about this. And it's on Jazzline, which has been my label since 2018. This guy who runs the label, Joachim Becker, is a great cat. And he's a music lover. So I'm very blessed, because most young cats today don't have a chance to make money and to have a good record company, because nobody pays for music anymore. So I'm blessed.
Bill: Kurt Ranker, who produced Leaving, has been on the scene for quite a while now. I remember him from his CMP Records in the '80s and '90s, producing records by Liebman, Joachim Kühn, Trilok Gurtu, David Torn, Glen Velez, Marty Fogel, Mick Karn and a few by yourself (1983's Breathing of Statues and 1992's Self Portraits as well as Liebman's 1980 album, Dedication, and their 1990 duet project Chant ).
Richie: Yes, Kurt is the man. He's known us forever, since 1979. He had CMP we did a whole bunch of stuff for him. And then he saw the light about 20 years ago. He said, "Fuck this! i-Tunes is gonna wipe out everything." So he sold CMP to some big English umbrella company. But now he does all independent productions. We do it for him and then he sells it to Jazzline or some other company. He's a real patron.
Bill: So was this place where you played the concert for Leaving at a vineyard?
Richie: It was, in the St. Emilion region near Bourdeaux, France. The concert was in this chateau and, of course, they had a vineyard. It's been in the family for like 200 years and this young couple recently took it over. And, man, they have culture! My friend Jean-Jacques Quesada), who is also an amateur saxophone player, he organized everything -- the piano, the situation, the money, the transportation. It was perfect. He was really on our team. And they have music there once a month. They don't always have piano concerts, sometimes they have string quartets, and they don't have jazz very often. It was an amazing setting. It's like two or three times in a lifetime when you have something like that. And I felt that. I felt like Chopin in the 1800s playing in somebody's house during the Belle Epoch, where everybody's sitting around the piano, people are having glasses of wine and just enjoying it. And the silence in this concert space was incredible. It was a certain kind of silence that was total respect, where people are really listening. And then great applause and smiles. There was no stage, it was a small-ish room. It was actually the wine tasting room in the chateau. And it was all wood...fantastic acoustics.
Bill: Your interpretations of these jazz standards are brimming with ideas. You're changing stuff up on each piece.
Richie: Yeah, Take "Nardis," for example. That tune I've been playing since my first recording on ECM as a leader (1976's Eon). That tune really affected me. And, of course, there's a big debate, which we should talk about, as to who actually wrote "Nardis." It's listed as Miles Davis having written it but I would bet my life that Bill Evans wrote it and probably sold it to Miles for publishing when he was using.
Bill: Well, that's kind of true of "Flamenco Sketches", isn't it?
Richie: Yes, of course. "Flamenco Sketches" is "Peace Piece" in different keys. But "Nardis" is a particular case. Miles never wrote anything like that and he never recorded anything like that. Miles wrote ditties. He wrote "No Blues," he wrote "All Blues," he wrote "Dig," which is maybe a bebop line. Nothing on the level of "Nardis," which is a 32-bar masterpiece with a great motive and beautiful harmony. It's a piano player's tune. So of course Bill wrote it! Bill recorded it over 100 times. Plus, in the last years of Bill's life...I was friends with him...he had this thing where he would play these long, rhapsodic, ten-minute solo piano intros on "Nardis," and he'd get into things that he never got into with his trio -- Scriabin, very contemporary sounding Bartok stuff -- while still staying in the form. And this really affected me. And I just always loved that tune. Bill has said...I've seen him say in concerts, "Now we'd like to do a Miles Davis tune," but I'm sure...Bill is such a gentleman...that he made an agreement with Miles. Because Miles was at the Cannonball Adderley record date that had the first recording of "Nardis," a very important record (1958's Portrait of Cannonball on Riverside, featuring Evans on piano). Miles was there at that session, that's documented. And Miles just said to him, "Hey, great tune, Bill." And then the next thing we know, it was Miles' tune. Miles has a history of appropriating tunes. We know that Eddie Cleanhead Vinson wrote "Four" and Miles took it. Miles tried to take "In a Silent Way" but Joe Zawinul wouldn't let him do it. And, of course, "Blue and Green"...maybe he and Bill collaborated on that tune but Miels didn't write it himself. Miles was a genius trumpet player, he was a great visionary leader, but he wasn't a fucking composer at all. It was like Sonny Rollins...he mostly played ditties, you know what I'm saying? Nothing's as developed and magnificent as "Nardis." What a fucking mood! And Eminor? Trumpets don't write in Eminor. You know how that fucks him up? Puts him in F#. Anyway, in my version of "Nardis" I got into things on that, you know, aren't the normal bebop performance of that tune where you play the head, you solo and you take the head out. Instead, I found parts of the tune that I hadn't yet explored. And when you're playing solo piano, you have this enormous freedom where you can stop and you can change the harmony right then and there. You can't do that with anything else, certainly not a full band. Maybe you could do it with a drummer in a duo. But even the greatest bass player in the world can't keep up with that. So I took advantage of the harmonic freedom and also the episodic freedom, where I can go into an area and stay as long as I like. I could stay on the bridge for like 4, 5 minutes, if it felt like it. And I did. I took advantage of that freedom and came up with some fresh things. Also, I'm an emotional player. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I'm not ashamed of it. I'm a jazz player and I'm expressive, and the different ways of expressing myself on a tune like "Nardis," it's amazing because you can really put yourself into it. And I play very differently from Bill, and always have. So that tune really gave me a big way to begin the concert, like an overture.
Bill: Within all of these pieces, you are extrapolating from the form, introducing reharm, changing tempos, you're doing a lot of things. And invariably, you're injecting swing into it.
Richie: Yes, that's right.
Bill: That seems to be a strong part of your arsenal.
Richie: It is. I am unabashedly, unashamedly a jazz pianist. I can swing and I love it! And I think the people feel it. Maybe they don't know the word, but they feel the rhythmic contrast. A lot of guys play without the swing feel, and it's still very good and it's beautiful. But there's something about that swing feel, man. And I don't just play it, I highlight it and really lay in it. And I think it balances out a lot of the romantic things that would maybe come off as being too sweet. I'm playing solo piano, but also I'm a rhythmic player, I'm a rhythm section player. I love it. And my sense of rhythm, I think, is one of the things that distinguishes me. Here's the other thing: all this stuff we're talking about, I never think about this anymore when I'm playing. Never. When I was young, I practiced the piano so much-- classical music when I was six until I was 18. And then I practiced so much to get my own vocabulary and chops and time and changes and my own compositions that by the time I was 40 I was able to stop practicing, but never stop analyzing and reflecting. But when I'm playing, I'm completely blank in my mind. And that works the best. Because if I'm thinking, I'm judging, I'm not there. The good thing about being 75 -- and I've played on over 400 records -- is that I'm experienced enough so that when the recording is going on, I'm relaxed. The pressure calms me and focuses me, and I play better under pressure than I do in my own house. So those intellectual things and analytical things, they don't happen. Because they fuck up your flow. You jump out of it to analyze it: "Oh, how was that? Hope that was good." Forget it, you're already gone.
Bill: So something strikes you at a point in the tune -- maybe you're playing a delicate rubato intro and at some point in the piece something strikes you to just start syncopating and start swinging. It's not thought out, like, "Oh, here's the passage where I''ll start swinging." You have assimilated so much that it just coming out naturally.
Richie: It does. And here's the way to explain it: When I'm playing, half of me is total concentration, I'm in it. The other half is, I'm in the audience, I'm listening to it as a listener, which helps keep me guided as to whether I'm playing too long, too much, too loud, too high, too low. It's not analytical or judgmental. It's just keeps me on an even keel. And in order to do that, you have to have a lot of real technique and confidence and experience. And I do. So I'm there 100% but part of me is also listening. I'm listening just like you would be listening to me from the audience, which helps me to shape it so that it's not too much this or that, too chopsy, too much banging. When I was younger and I didn't have that much experience and I would play solo piano, there were times when I would have a 20-minute piece that should have been 12 minutes. Or a four-minute piece that should have been 15 minutes. So that takes time to develop that understanding. Solo jazz piano is a bitch. It's Mount Everest. And not everybody can do it. Not everybody that's a great pianist can play solo piano concerts. Both Herbie and Bill told me that they don't feel that they have the dimension to play solo piano. And I think it's true with Herbie. He can play a fantastic intro that is absolute genius, but he's a bass and drums player. And he's smart. He only has two solo records and they're OK, but it's nothing striking. And Bill, who can play solo, said he didn't have the dimension to play. But that's not true. I don't think so. I think he was just being modest.
Bill: Another thing that is unique about you is that you've played and recorded so much classical music. You've recorded Mozart, Bartok, Scriabin, all kinds of stuff. That is part of your makeup as well that comes out naturally when you play. And so on your medley of "What is This Thing Called Love" with "Alone Together," it's swinging, but then it gets contrapuntal. There's some serious counterpoint going on, and it seems like you're weaving these esthetics together very organically.
Richie: It's true. And it's very interesting you say that because....good observation. I think of all the classical music that I've played and studied and listened to, which I love, and contemporary music -- Takemitsu, all the great shit, all the great literature; that combined with my love of jazz and Bird and Trane and Miles and all the shit that I've done...to me, it's one big reservoir, and when I go to play, I'm drinking from that reservoir. It's all in the moment. That's the thing. Classical music is magnificent and it's sensual, it's primal. But you know what's coming, you know the piece. You know the Mozart piece, you know the Bartok piece. And here's the score, and how wonderful! You can't wait for it. It's like reading a novel. You read Hemingway and you know every word but it hits you differently each time you read it. Same with an old movie. But with jazz, you don't know what's coming, and you're not supposed to know what's coming. And you find it with the people that you're playing with. That's the beauty. I used to go six nights to hear Miles' band at the Village Vanguard with Tony and Wayne and Ron and Herbie. I was young but I was there, and I would get in the door through the back because I didn't have the money, sp I would sneak in and sit there in the corner with Lieb. And every night they played the same tunes. They played "Stella," they played a blues, they played "My Funny Valentine." Every night the same dumb tunes that we all played. And it was miraculous because it was different every night. And yet it still had that level of excellence, it wasn't just hit or miss. So I tried to incorporate all those values into my playing. The classical stuff is a tremendous source for me and I use it freely. I use it in "Stella," I use it in the blues. And, of course, I'm not the first one to do it because Herbie did it, McCoy did it, and Chick did it. Chick Corea was an incredible genius who had synthesized a lot of contemporary music into his own playing, and I'm following in that path.
Bill: I like the way you open "What is this Thing Called Love?" on Leaving. It's very dark, dissonant. It's almost like a deliberate deconstruction of the romantic tune.
Richie: It is, it is.
Bill: It's almost like a snarky kind of statement, like, "What the fuck IS this shit called love?"
Richie: Yeah, I want mystery. I don't want you to know. It was like, if you take a telescope and you turn it upside down, you see it like, "Oh, what's that?" I wanted the wide view. I wanted it to come from deep abstract -- Boulez's Piano Sonata. Just like, "What the fuck is that?" People won't recognize it at first, and then when it comes into focus it becomes an experience. And that's what I was looking for.
Bill: You have a similar approach on "'Round Midnight," a sort of dissonant jangling at the intro before it settles into the theme. It's a lush reading, but then it turns into almost like Glenn Gould playing Monk or something.
Richie: Oh that's a fantastic description -- Glenn Gould playing Monk. Yeah, I mean that's part of my job is to do something different, don't you think? It's so funny because Glenn was once asked in an interview, "Why do you have such strange tempos and such unusual things?" And he said, "The only reason to make a record is to do it differently from the normal thing." And it was so...click...light bulb! So that informs a lot of my choices. But also, I'm just going for it. And I do trust myself. I trust my creativity, I trust my fingers. I was trained so seriously when I was very young by a great Italian piano teacher, James Palmieri, and I practiced so much and so correctly that I actually now have a brain in every finger. As master Palmieri said, "I'm going to put a brain in every finger, and if you do what I tell you, you will never have to worry about technique again." And in a way it was perfect training for a jazz pianist. He hated jazz, by the way. I once put on "Milestones" for him and he said, "Take that off!" He just couldn't deal. But he was my master. He was 60 from Palermo and I was six years old from Brooklyn. I was like a second son to him because my father was not around when I was a kid. He was working 12 hours a day to support the family, so I didn't connect with my father until I was 18. But living in Bensonhurst, in Brooklyn, in the '50s, I just absorbed everything that I could. And in those days there were no jazz books, there were no jazz schools, except for Berklee. So we had to get the information ourselves -- me and Lieb, Randy Brecker, Bob Moses, Steve Grossman and all the cats. I remember Lieb and I trying to figure out the changes on "Con Alma" from Stan Getz's Sweet Rain record from 1967. We tried to transcribe it and we got some of it, we didn't get a lot of it. So we'd asked around. Finally, we've taught each other. I helped Lieb with harmony, he helped me with melody. That's how we learned. I went to Manhattan School of Music and studied Theory and Composition with Ludmilla Ulehla. Jazz was not even talked about. It was a four-letter word. You don't talk about jazz. Now, there's a jazz department in every school, which is great. But I'm thinking the really important allegiance is to creativity, the freshness of it and the involvement. And I'm engaged in that so I'm not just jerking around.
Bill: You guys learned it by the book, but then you threw the book away.
Richie: You have to throw the book away. The thing is, the book is great. You can't discard it. You must learn it inside and out. But the thing about the book is the uniformity. It's a cancer. Everybody's reading the same book, and everybody's going to play the same shit. That's what you have today. Sorry. In a lot of the jazz schools, even the good ones, you've got the players all sounding like cookie cutters because they all went through the same shit. The teachers gave them all great material, but you have to sit and figure it out for yourself. We had no choice. The whole point is to be yourself. Jazz is the music of the individual. If you want to play classical music, that's great. Classical music is about the composer. It's about Bach and Chopin, Beethoven, and they're all geniuses. So it should be about them. Is their music open to self-expression, interpretation? Yes. How much? 10%. Buy ten of the best recordings of the Chopin Nocturnes by Rubinstein, Ashkenazy or whoever, and put them on. They going to be very similiar. Occasionally, you get something crazy like Glenn Gould, who perversely records a Mozart adagio as a presto because that's his own thing. But even Glenn...look at the two bookended versions of Bach's Goldberg Variations. The first one was recorded in 1955 when he was just 22, and second one, the last recording ever did before he died, was done in 1981. You listen to those two interpretations and what a clear change! The tempo is so slower on the 1981 version, and it makes everything different. So to me, it's important to do something new, but it has to come organically for a reason.
Bill: You mentioned that you trust yourself but it also feels like you challenge yourself, as Glenn Gould did.
Richie: Yes, I trust myself enough to challenge myself. And under pressure. In a full concert hall, there's no take two, there's no coming back and doing it over. You can't edit that shit, and you wouldn't want to. So I was very...not lucky but inspired. I was in good shape and it does come from confidence. Experience is everything. But I insist on challenging myself. Like, the next record is not going to be standards, it's going to be completely different. I don't know what it's going to be? Maybe it'll be the music of Scarlatti or maybe only original tunes. But that's the fun of it, to find different stuff to challenge yourself.
Bill: I like how on "Some Other Time" you're melding "Peace Piece" into the intro. It's a beautiful dovetailing of those two themes.
Richie: The source for "Peace Piece" is Chopin's Berceuses in D-flat Major, Op. 57. Fantastic. So yeah, I played the "Peace Piece" intro and then I played the tune "Some Other Time," which I love. And then instead of improvising on that tune, I improvised on "Peace Piece." So I have this long, quiet kind of a sustain, and the repetition of the left hand is a big contrast to all the movement of "Nardis" and "'Round Midnight" and all that swirling shit. Again, it's just to give people, and myself, a contrast.
Bill: On "Some Other Time" you're deftly dropping in quotes from "Maria," "I Loves You, Porgy," "When I Flll in Love," "My Romance," "Lush Life," which you reharmed. Also "In the Wee Small Hours" and "It Might As Well Be Spring."
Richie: You're right. You got the main ones. That ends up being a homage to all those tunes without having to play them. Plus, I can abstract them a little bit and make them mine, you know?
Bill: Well, that's like a classic Sonny Rollins thing, right? I remember playing 'the quote game' at Sonny concerts, calling out the names of all the tunes he's quoting during his solo.
Richie: Yes, Sonny would play ten different tunes in one cadenza.
Bill: You begin another medley with a very delicate rendition of "Spring Is Here" before it goes into that waltz time feel. And then you segue to "Maiden Voyage," which is totally unexpected.
Richie: I know, I didn't plan that. Here's something you should know. A week before the concert, Kurt Renker, who is a great producer suggested something different. He said, "Why don't you make a big list, like 15-20 tunes, then choose what you're going to play when you're up there." What a great idea. That's what I did. I didn't have a set list in a sequence but I had choices. So while I was playing, I went from "Solar" into "Maiden Voyage," and I've never done that before. And the transition between them was a very interesting, creative moment, because I was neither here nor there. And that produced some interesting things.
Bill: You also played a son montuno kind of Latin groove in the middle of "Maiden Voyage," which I've never heard before.
Richie: Yes, I got the vibe. Those changes seem so perfect for Latin with that vamp. It just seemed natural in that moment and I just jumped into it.
Bill: In that same medley, how do you go from "Maiden Voyage" to "Monk's Dream"?
Richie: I don't know, I just felt it. "Monk's Dream" is not a tune that I ever recorded solo piano. It's a real band tune. I love the tune, it's a genius tune, but somehow it seemed right for this solo concert. Again, I'm always looking for contracts and it was so different from "Maiden Voyage." I just heard it in the moment and I leaped on it. I wasn't thinking, "Is this right?" Because if you start thinking, you lose the moment. Remember Bill's liner notes for Kind of Blue about the Japanese brush paintings, where if you stop you destroy the line or break the parchment? [There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible. These artists must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere. The resulting pictures lack the complex composition and textures of ordinary painting, but it is said that those who see well find something captured that escapes explanation.] That's what I was vibing on, but I didn't even know it.
Bill: Continuing that same medley, you go from a playful "Monk's Dream" into a gentle "You Don't Know What Love Is." Again, that's another interesting choice.
Richie: I know. I've never done that before. Here's the thing: A medley is two or more tunes together without stopping. Medleys is what I used to play when I was 16 at a fucking bar mitzvah or wedding. Why do you play medleys? Because you don't want people to stop dancing. You don't stop, there's no applause. It's ongoing, it's continuous. But I kind of took that idea of a medley and kind of exploded it like a kaleidoscope and just put these seemingly disparate things together. And I did not plan them. Like I said, I had the list and maybe I looked at the list in a transition and I went, "Boom!" It just seemed like the right choice. I was lucky. Because if you use tunes in a medley that don't work together, it sounds forced. It's like ketchup and ice cream. I love ketchup on a hot dog or french fries and I love ice cream. But not on the same plate! It's horrible. And I never did a medley live in concert before. Never. I would always stop after every tune, maybe talk after every two or three tunes just to stay in contact with the audience. But in this concert I didn't stop, and it had a great effect on the people. They saw something special was going on. Me too.
Bill: You're version of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" is almost like a Cubist rendering of that famous tune.
Richie: Yes, it's totally Cubist. It's totally abstracted. The original is fantastic, we love it, but I wanted to make it mine. So I played it really fast and very intense. No space, very little dynamics. The essence of that tune is the bass line. It's a Cminor blues with a couple of extra nice changes. But what an amazing melody on those chords! This is a true masterpiece and a showcase of Wayne's genius. You could never think of Cminor again without hearing that melody. So the combination of that iconic, melodic bassline that carries everything with the rhythm and that melody, it's everything you need. You don't even need the chords. So to me, that sets up a whole horizon that I can fill with anything. And I can really burn out there, like I would burn with Billy Hart and Jack DeJohnette. And I wanted that tune in the concert because I'm a jazz piano player. "Footprints" was the end of the concert, so it starts with "Nardis" and it ends with "Footprints." I wanted to make that connection and come full circle with those tunes. You know, the architecture of the set is very important to me but I didn't plan it in this case, so I was lucky it worked out. But with "Footprints," I wanted to rip the fuckin' piano apart and have that abandonment in there too. Because "Some Other Time" is so beautiful and elegant and careful and lovely and calming, but "Footprints" is dangerous. And I was right at the edge of what I could play there. That's where it pays to have chops.
Bill: You encore with a medley of your tunes "Leaving" and "Sunday Song." Did you plan that?
Richie: No, I didn't. I thought I would maybe play an original composition, but I didn't know which one. I could've played "Elm," I could've played "Broken Wing" or "Pendulum." But I wanted to play a ballad after "Footprints," which was a burn. And "Leaving" ended up being the title track of this album, because I love that tune. That was first recorded on ECM in 1977 on Hubris, my first solo piano record. So there's a kind of a symmetry there. And I recorded it a lot. Chet recorded "Leaving" a bunch of times. We played it live together. He loved it.
Bill: "Leaving" has such a melancholy feel. Is it about losing someone in your life?
Richie: l'll tell you the story. I was a young man in 1975 when I was doing tours with Lookout Farm in Germany. It was a great band and we had a self-titled record out on ECM. And on this tour I met a girl. Her name was Doris. She was 21. Stunning. From Aachen, Germany. Beautiful black hair, white skin. Short, lovely, intelligent, spoke very little English. She was not a musician but she had a great spirit. We fell passionately in love on the tour. It was the kind of love where you can't think about anything else. So then after the tour I went home, but we made a plan. I was going to come back to Germany do a solo record for Manfred Eicher on ECM (1977's Hubris). And the plan was to pick her up, bring her to the record date with me and then bring her back home with me to New York to be my love and live with me in my apartment on Spring Street. So it was all planned, I was totally excited. What happened was, I went to her house in Aachen to pick her up and help her with suitcases. She was waiting outside and she was crying, her eyes were all red. And standing next to her was her father and her three brothers. And they were looking at me like I was robbing the cradle. So I said, "What's the manner?" And she said, "I can't come." The father didn't want here to leave and the brothers were crazy. Theoretically, she was 21. By law, she could have come with me. But she realized she was too young, she had no life on her own, she had no way of being independent. She had no papers, she had no job. She would be completely dependent on me for money. So she said, "I can't." And she was right. I was heartbroken because I really loved her. It was really my first big love. So I just left her there. She said she was sorry. So I went to the record date without her. I remember taking the train from Aachen to Stuttgart to record at Bauer Studios in Ludwigsberg, that famous ECM studio. I was on the train for two hours and I'm crying on the train like a little bitch, but I'm trying not to let anybody see me in distress. So I'm crying and then I started hearing this melody. And, I said, "Holy shit, it's coming!" I didn't have pen or paper so I went to the train conductor and asked for some. He gives me some regular paper, not music paper. I make lines of spaces and I'm writing the song, the melody. And the song is writing itself. It's coming out, I just write it and copy it down. And the chords came with it, like 'batteries included.' It was totally inspired. I was heartbroken, I was just devastated, and it just came right out of my soul. And I never edited it, I never fixed it. It was perfect -- 32 bars...BOOM! So I got to the studio and I got myself together because I had to make my first-ever solo piano recording. And remember, in those days, only real piano players had put out solo piano recordings -- Keith Jarrett had Facing You, Chick Corea had Improvisation I & II, Paul Bley had Open to Love...all the best shit. Steve Kuhn did one later called Trance that was brilliant. So it was an honor to be in that esteemed company. So I get to the record date and I said, "Manfred, I have a ballad I want to play." He says, "Ah, very good." Manfred loved ballads. He would prefer all ballads. So I played "Leaving" and he just loved it, and we did it in two takes. That was the first solo recording, and this tune has resonated with people all over the world since then. And a lot of vocalists have recorded it. A very famous German singer, Norbert Gottschalk, wrote nice lyrics to it. And it's in the Real Book now, it's a standard. The version I played on this new album was a very different version from the original ECM version back in 1977. But that's a story. It's about a girl, it's about a love lost. And then I saw her again ten years later. She was working in a bank, she had three children, was very happy. She had a great husband, a big policeman who loved the shit out of her. We talked a couple of times since then. She was right, she shouldn't have come. It would have been a disaster, and it would have been a drag for her.
Bill: So 45 years later, when you play this song, do you think of Doris?
Richie: No, I don't. But I think of other losses. You know, we lost John Abercrombie and George Mraz, Vic Juris and Ronnie Cuber. You know, we're losing a lot of motherfuckers now because we're getting old. They're dropping like flies, man. And then, of course, all the people we lost due to COVID. But losing George and Abercrombie...that was the hardest. That was terrible. Because those are my brothers. We were beyond friends. So that was hard. So when I play a tune now, it's a universal lament, it's about leaving.
But I didn't want to end the concert on that note, it's too sad. So then I made a medley with "Sunday Song," which is one of the first things I ever wrote -- CMajor, Bminor, Aminor, G. It's like a children's song but it has a warmth to it. It's very hard when you play those kind of simple, sweet tunes because it's very easy for it to be schmaltzy, and it's always one inch away from kitsch. So if you put too much sweetness in you have to pull it back a little bit, and I wasn't so good at that 20, 30 years ago. It was more hit and miss, but now it's taken care of. So "Sunday Song" sends people out of the concert feeling good. And the simplicity of that piece balances out all the abstract, dark shit on the rest of the record. And that's what I'm looking for. It's like a really great meal in arestaurant where you go out and you spend a lot of money -- you have an appetizer, you have a main dish with a salad, and then you have special wine with this. And then you have a fantastic dessert and coffee and cognac. It's like a whole experience, right? You don't eat like that every day.
Bill: So "Sunday Song" is the aperitivo.
Richie: Yeah, maybe a Strega or a good liqueur like Baileys.