Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Spiritual Side of Jazz: An Interview with Jazz Pianist Pete Malinverni

Pete Malinverni photo by Abigail Feldman
The pianist, composer and educator Pete Malinverni has been on the New York City jazz scene since 1981. He has developed a style that has incorporated the be-bop elements of a Bud Powell, the harmonic sophistication of a Bill Evans and the quirky, angularity of a Thelonious Monk. As a young man he realized that he could more rapidly improve his skill by seeking out people to play with who were better than he was. He began to make inroads and establish himself as player to be taken seriously. At the same time Malinverni also maintained a presence in the world of musical education. He has contributed to the teaching and mentoring of up and coming musicians and students at William Patterson University, New York University and now Purchase Conservatory of Music where is currently the Director of Jazz Studies. His close experiences with jazz luminaries like the drummers Mel Lewis and Vernel Fourier, the bassist Dennis Irwin and the saxophonist Ralph Lalama, among others, has shaped his voice and been instrumental in moving him in his own distinct direction.

The most consistent thread that has run through the fabric of this talented musician's life has been his continued affinity for sacred music. Mr. Malinverni has been making the connection between worship and music since his early days in his hometown of Buffalo, NY, where he at first listened to his mother sing solos in the local Pentecostal church choir and where he later played piano for the congregation.

After relocating to New York City, where he attended school for his master's degree in music at Purchase Conservatory, Mr. Malinverni found a rich supplement to his education in the thriving jazz scene of NYC. There on any given evening he could listen to the very best pianists on the scene. Pianists like Barry Harris, Walter Bishop Jr, Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones were all actively playing around town and infusing Mr. Malinverni with ideas and wisdom. He started playing in trios with Mel Lewis and Dennis Irwin and was on his way to becoming a well respected pianist and composer.

For Mr. Malinverni the bond between sacred, gospel and jazz music needed further exploration and he eventually became a musical coordinator for the Devoe Street Baptist Church in Brooklyn. The spirited African American community gave life to the music that he played with them and he served there eighteen years from 1993 through 2011. It was during this period that he  found inspiration from the Psalms of David to create his wonderful gospel and jazz album with the Devoe Street Choir titled Joyful from 2007. In 2009 Pete release The Good Shepard a six movement, experimental big band piece with choir and orchestra, again based on Psalms.

On the personal side Mr. Malinverni met and married the jazz singer Jody Sandhaus with whom he had a rare symbiotic working relationship. The couple had a son Peter Luca and helped raise two other children, Hayes and Guss from Ms. Sandhaus's previous marriage, Mr. Malinverni produced four albums with Ms Sandhaus, who possessed a beautiful, incandescent voice. She also had an authentically genuine delivery. Sadly Ms. Sandhaus succumbed to breast cancer in 2012.

Along with his duties as the Director of Jazz Studies at Purchase Conservatory of Music, Mr. Malinverni has also found time to continue his involvement in spiritual music working as musical director for both the Westchester Reform Synagogue in Scarsdale, NY and the Pound Ridge Community Church in Pound Ridge. In recent years Mr. Malinverni has also recorded his  Invisible Cities with a quartet  that included the trumpeter Tim Hagans, the saxophonist Rich Perry, the bassist Ugonna Okegwo  and drummer Tom Melito . His latest release  A Beautiful Thing is with bassist Lee Hudson and drummer Eliot Zigmund. He gracious took the time to answer our questions.

NOJ:. You grew up around Niagara Falls, New York and started studying piano at the age of six. Were you a child prodigy or did you have an affinity for the piano?

PM: I don’t know about “prodigy”, but I know I took to the piano and music in general pretty quickly.  I always heard music very deeply, even silly things like TV theme songs (which were, some of them, pretty hip in those days), which I’d pick out on the piano.

NOJ:. Which of your parents encouraged your musical education?

PM:  Both of them did.  We were lucky to get a piano when I was six and there was a great teacher, Laura Copia, in town, with whom I studied until I was eighteen and left home. My Mom ended up with the job of keeping me at the piano practicing daily but my dad was also very supportive and proud as my abilities progressed.

NOJ:  Your mother was a soloist in the local Pentecostal church choir. Do you attribute this early influence to the subliminal linkage that your career has had between music and religion?

PM:  Well, I think the connection has been more than subliminal.  I grew up playing in church and when I was around 16. I went to Europe on a tour of Pentecostal churches with a group of musicians, including my guitarist cousin. We played every night in very emotional settings where I saw the direct connection music can have to humanity.

NOJ:  I have read that you were strongly influenced as a young man by Soul, R&B, gospel and funk artists like James Brown, Sly Stone and Andrae Crouch.  Did the juxtaposition of this earthy, free feeling , bacchanalian music against the more rigid, parochial music of the Pentecostal church make it all the more attractive to you?

PM: I’m not sure I knew it at the time, but Sly’s music is directly descended from music of the church, as was James Brown’s. And Andrae’s music is great, too, but overtly religious lyrically, of course. I heard his group several times and the chords and time feel were like those I was hearing and loving, especially in Sly’s music. The thing about Sly’s music is the positivity of it, the appeal to the good in people – and I see no disconnect between that and music of the church at its best. I think the real difference here was that I was appreciating music played by African-Americans.  The music of the Pentecostal Black church is pretty free-wheeling too, by the way. This particular cultural approach to music struck me then and still strikes now as somehow the most authentic I can hear and feel.

NOJ:    How did you make the transition from sacred and gospel music, to R & B, to funk and eventually to jazz?

PM: When looked at historically, it’s clear that the Black church in no small part gave rise to at least some elements of Jazz -- so really, the leap is not so large.  But, as I grew more skilled as a musician I sought a vehicle for both my artistic and emotional voices.  I’d studied Classical piano through my whole life (and still do), and I found that the requisite musical skills of Jazz music offered the greatest challenge and largest rewards for me.

NOJ:    As a contemporary jazz artist what do you think of the artists like Robert Glasper who are being heralded for integrating hip-hop with jazz? Is this just the next evolutionary step?

PM: I don’t really have any opinions on the work of other musicians.  I think everyone should do what makes the most artistic sense to him or her.

NOJ:  You yourself have done some interesting integration in your compositions using elements of gospel, classical, chamber music and jazz. Do you believe this type of cross pollination opens new directions for the music or does it dilute the tradition as some traditionalists believe?

PM: Bix Beiderbecke, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, John Lewis of the MJQ, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and many others have found inspiration from Classical and other forms of music.  I think that “Jazz” is a term used to more or less categorize music of a certain bent but it’s important that each artist do what his/her path says is the right one.  The task of categorization, as Aaron Copland once told me, is for the writers, critics and historians.
Pete Malinverni photo by Ralph A. Miriello

NOJ:    You studied at the Crane School of Music in Potsdam , New York.  During that period what do feel was the most important part of your musical education and who was you major influence there?

PM: The most important part of my education in Potsdam was that which I learned OUTSIDE the school, playing with several bands, cutting our teeth in the many pubs and rathskellers in that town during that time.   The classes I enjoyed the most and from which I took the most were not music courses but were, in fact, the many literature classes I took.  The way great writers have looked at life and their ability to describe its many turns in beautiful ways remains an inspiration to me.   Don’t get me wrong, for someone who wants to study Music Education, Crane is a great school.  And one of the most important things college can do for a young person is show him or her what he DOESN’T want to do.  In my case, while I finished the Music Ed degree, I learned that performance -- and not public high school music education -- would be my path.

NOJ:     You came to New York and started studied for your Master’s of Music at Purchase Conservatory of Music Was this where you concentrated on your compositional skills?

PM: Yes, I’d been thinking of composition for a very long time and had received some grants, including from the NEA, for that work, but learned an awful lot studying Counterpoint with the great composer/keyboardist Anthony Newman.

NOJ:   By 1981 you were gigging in and around New York, How difficult did you find it to become a viable working musician?

PM: It was very difficult, of course, but I learned perseverance and the most important life-skill of finding something, anything, to learn from any and every situation.  I also made it a point to always take the risk of working with musicians who were better than I.  In that way, I learned well and quickly (if painfully).

NOJ: .  What were some of the obstacles that you encountered when you started your musical career  in NYC?

PM: I didn’t know a soul when I moved to NYC, had no idea where the clubs were, who the players were or how to meet them.  But I soon learned and made it a point to get to know people, to play as often as possible and to continue to push, knowing that if my destiny were to strike out I wanted it to be while swinging the bat, not watching the third strike with the bat on my shoulder.

NOJ: Drugs were a known element that seemed to find a haven in the jazz world especially post Parker, what were your experiences with this culture when you were gigging in New York?

PM: Then, and now, I think that business people and youngsters in suburbs with access to disposable money and without satisfying life paths are far more prone to developing out-of-control drug problems than musicians with a love for music and a desire to learn its many difficult intricacies.

NOJ: .  There have been some books written about race and jazz that claim there exists what they call a reverse racism in jazz. As a white musician in a predominantly black musical genre have you encountered this and how has it affected you?

PM: I guess I wouldn’t know if I’ve encountered such a thing.  I’ve always gotten along well with people of all races, with music as the important, common denominator.  And, my eighteen years as Minister of Music at the (African-American) Devoe Street Baptist Church in Brooklyn went a long way toward making sure my son grew up in as open a relationship with all people of good will as I’ve been blessed to have.

NOJ:  You mentioned that some of your piano influences included Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Herbie Nichols and Bud Powell . With so many disparate voices influencing your music mind how were ultimately able to find your own voice?

PM: When we find our influences, we are actually recognizing some part of our true voice in each of those whose music we love.  So, just in the same way each of us has a multi-faceted personality, each musician does as well.  Each of those you name (and more) have said things in ways that ring true to me and that I’ve sought to emulate.  The combination of those many voices, spoken in my own musical “accent” is what I’d call my voice.

NOJ:   Getting back to your early days in NY, you met drummer Mel Lewis and became friends with him, ultimately making a few albums with him and your friend the bassist Dennis Irwin. How did this relationship come to pass?

PM: As I sought the best players in NYC I was led to the Village Vanguard where I heard Mel’s group.  I learned that Mel was from Buffalo and I’m from Niagara Falls so that was something we had in common.  As I said, my goal has always been to play with better players than I -- and Mel and Dennis were greats and sounded beautifully together.  So, whenever I got work I called them.  We got to play quite a bit and eventually recorded together, my first, Don’t Be Shy. I called Rudy Van Gelder and was shocked when he agreed to engineer the date out at his famous studio in Englewood Cliffs, NJ

NOJ: .  Did you play piano with Mel’s Village Vanguard Orchestra?

PM: I did sub there on several occasions.

NOJ:  Was this your first experience with a big band?

PM:  No, I played with a couple in college and then several rehearsal bands after I moved to NYC.

NOJ:  Then in 1989 you released your second album The Spirit with a quartet that included Mel, Pat O’Leary on bass and saxophonist Ralph LaLama. This turned out to be Mel’s last recording date.
How hard was it for you to loose such an important musical comrade and what did you take away from your experience with Mel?

PM:  Yes, this was Mel’s last recording and he was courageous on that day.  He was very sick at the time, in the middle of chemo and radiation treatments, but played like the youngest and smartest guy in the studio.  I learned a lot from Mel that day about the power of music to lift us all up.  Also, more generally, he taught me to trust my own rhythmic instincts.  He encouraged me, saying he liked what I was doing.  That meant everything to me.

NOJ: .  You then started working regularly with New Orleans drummer Vernel Fournier.  I read somewhere that it was he who made you aware of how much freer you played when you were in church playing sacred music.  Is this when you reconnected to your sacred music roots?

PM: Vernel was a great drummer and great man.  He invented the famous “Poinciana” beat when he played with Ahmad Jamal and that trio greatly influenced the group of Miles Davis at that time, so his shadow is large over the music that came after him.  He, too, encouraged me to feel the music as I did naturally.  And he taught me a lot about professionalism, too, as we traveled together, sometimes he in my group, sometimes I in his.  He used to come and play with me at Devoe Street and we found an even deeper connection there.

NOJ: .  How did Vernel’s drumming differ from Mel’s and how did it affect your music?

PM: Their playing was, I think more alike than it was different.  They both played off beat “one”, making the music more dance-able, more closely related to the human body. I learned the value of the “one” from both of them and, since then, every other great drummer with whom I've played has further solidified that idea.

NOJ: .  In 1993 you started playing at the Devoe Street Baptist Church in Brooklyn, NY as its musical director. You have stated that you were less self-conscious and found a new freedom when you played sacred music in this predominantly African American church. What was the difference between this congregation’s attitude toward music and the way your hometown Pentecostal church celebrated with music?

PM: I guess the difference is a cultural one.  But also, I have to admit that when I was young I was much less a musician than I was when I got to Devoe Street.  I’m sure, had I been better and more the agile musician I became, I would have been better able to play appropriately to the situation in which I found my young self.

NOJ:  You have stated that when you play music in church it allows you to act as a vessel for the message that it brings to the congregation.  Does that transformation happen when you play for an audience in a club or at a concert?

PM: Absolutely.

NOJ: .  Can you separate the musical experience from the spiritual experience or are they un-separable?

PM: I suppose one could do that, but I fail to see why!

NOJ: .  I read somewhere that you met your late wife the singer Jody Sandhaus when playing a gig for a friend of hers.  Where you aware that she was a singer before you met?

PM: No, I was not.

NOJ: You produced and played on both of her records Winter Man from 1997 and I Think of You 
from 2001. Jody had a very emotionally evocative voice, I especially loved the way she did “It’s A Lazy Afternoon” which you posted on You Tube. Where did she study and develop such a warm and sincere delivery?

PM: Jody Sandhaus made four recordings with me, Winter Moon,  I Think of You,  A Fine Spring Morning and Afterglow.  They are all available on iTunes, through CD Baby and from my website,   The sincerity and warmth to which you refer pretty much describe the way she lived her life.  She never did a song she couldn’t genuinely feel. As for the amazing vocal skills Jody possessed, she worked very hard at developing her range, her dynamics and her phrasing.  The beauty of it was that, to a non-musician, the effort was invisible.  She was a truly great artist.  We made one last recording, yet to be mixed and released, of music she chose from the World War II era and which will be released along with Jody’s transcription of many letters her Dad wrote home to her Mom from the European Theater of war.

NOJ: .  How much has Jody’s singing style affected your own playing style?

PM: She made me a better accompanist. She also proved to me that honesty, phrasing and time are the true essentials to music.

NOJ:   You’ve had to endure the loss of people who you were very close to you both in your personal and musical life Mel Lewis, Vernel Fournier, Dennis Irwin and most recently your wife Jody.
How has your faith and your connection to sacred music helped you deal with these challenges?

PM:  Not sure that religious music has proven any different from any other kind of music in helping me heal.  It’s all the same and enormously important to mental and spiritual health – if it’s honest.

NOJ:  In keeping with you affinity for sacred music, how have your experiences as Musical Director with the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale and your more recent duties as Musical Director of the Pound Ridge Community Church changed your musical vision?

PM: I’ve very much enjoyed learning the beautiful musical language of the Synagogue.  Of course, once you get the specifics it’s all about the heart and the soul, just like every other form of real music.

NOJ:   Your repertoire includes many spiritual compositions.  In 2007 you release Joyful a gospel choir work based on the Psalms of David.  You once said that you believe Gospel and Jazz were twins separated at birth. It seems as if Gospel is a  visceral “feel”  based music and jazz especially post be-bop  can be characterized as more of a “mind” music. How did you manage to make both work together?

PM:  Any seeker of a personal spiritual truth would indeed be foolish to forego the visceral for the intellectual or vice-versa. Those are both wonderful parts of the human experience and I want it all.

NOJ: .  In 2008 you released another ambitious album The Good Shepherd which was a six movement  work for Gospel choir and Jazz Orchestra. Is it more difficult to integrate voices as opposed to instrumentation into your music?

PM: No, I believe it’s the same idea.  I always think of music in a vocal way, that each line of music should flow horizontally.  The only obvious difficulty is in putting melodic lines with a lyric.  But, of course, my choice of the Psalms of King David solves that problem.  They are beautiful poetry, made for music.

NOJ: One of you recent  releases  is titled Invisible Cities which was a collection of songs that represent your musical vision of famous cities and is based on a novel by Italo Calvino. Perhaps the most interesting songs are two of your compositions, one about Salem, Massachusetts and inspired by Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter and the other “A City Called Heaven.”  How did you come to write these two pieces?

PM: ... for “Salem – Hester Prynne”, on Invisible Cities, I was so moved by Hawthorne’s great book that I wanted to write something as a sort of note to the heroine, expressing sympathy for her plight.  I didn’t write “A City Called Heaven”.  It’s actually a Spiritual, with my own arrangement of it featured on “Invisible Cities”.

NOJ:  You have worked in choir, gospel, jazz, classical and folk-inspired traditional sacred music and are now working with the saxophonist Steve Wilson and the Leipzig String Quartet on integrating jazz with string oriented chamber music.  Your repertoire of sacred or spiritual music continues to grow and is a clear guiding force in your music, but you made it clear you do not consider yourself a evangelical musician using music as a tool to convert or convince.  Why do you think find such inspiration in the sacred rather than the secular side of music?

PM:  I really don’t see any separation there. Open, human expression has found many inspirations over time and I’m equally inspired by a Bach Chorale as I am one of his Preludes and Fugues. I like Aretha Franklin singing Spirituals as well as “R E S P E C T”. I like Thelonious Monk performing “Abide With ME” as much as I like “Round Midnight”. Again, if it’s honest, it speaks.

NOJ:   As an Italian American musician who has studied in Italy I was fascinated by your connection to the Devoe Baptist Church which had originally been an Italian American Baptist Church that first integrated their congregation with the growing African-American community as their neighborhood cultural makeup changed. Although a little known fact, Italian Americans were instrumental in bringing western European music and musical education to the general public in this country since as far back as the Revolution. Do you feel the musical connection between African American music and the Italian American musicians and musical educators they encountered along the way is often underestimated by jazz and music historians?

PM: I’m not as familiar with that history as I should be.  It sounds like something very beautiful. I do have some old Italian hymnals and am aware (Vernel Fournier told me) of the importance in new Orleans of Italian-Americans in the development of Jazz but it sounds like there’s a hole in my education.

NOJ:  You have spent a good deal of your career as an educator at institutions like William Paterson University, New York University and presently Purchase Conservatory of Music. I looked up your rating as a teacher on line and found that you were rated highly for knowledge and well liked but were considered a pretty tough task master.  What does it take to be an effective educator to fellow musicians?

PM: Thanks for asking.  I’m Director of Jazz Studies at the SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Music and have an abiding respect for my students. Important, in my view, is to be generous in sharing the knowledge gained from one’s experiences.  But the most important thing is, once again, to be honest.  It’s better they hear constructive criticism from me than NOT to hear it from some potential colleague/employer later – that person will just lose his/her number and will not spend the time or take the chance of “enlightening” the young person.

NOJ:.  Finally what can we expect from Pete Malinverni in the near future?

PM: All kinds of things going on – I’m building a curriculum for a Jazz Singing Concentration to be introduced in the Purchase Jazz Studies program in Fall 2014, I’m working on music for a new trio recording and am writing arrangements of American Spirituals for a project for choir and Jazz band.  My latest album is “A Beautiful Thing”, a trio date with Lee Hudson and Eliot Zigmund (another great drummer, by the way. ) Oh, and I’m practicing a lot!

NOJ: Thanks Pete.

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