Greg Skaff's Star Bright On 'Polaris'
Guitarist Greg Skaff's latest album, Polaris, finds the former Wichitan and longtime New York City resident accompanied by two of the greatest living jazz players: bassist Ron Carter and drummer Albert "Tootie" Heath.
Comprised of original material from Skaff as well as a bevy of standards, the record demonstrates Skaff's particular genius on his instrument, including his singular phrasing and the ability to reimagine standards in such a way that renders them new.
Not a small feat, but then neither is recruiting two legends for your record and finishing the LP at the dawn of a pandemic.
Polaris, as Skaff tells it, was tracked in two quick bursts of activity: The first in August 2019 and the second in March 2020, amid circumstances that were filled with levity (in the case of Carter and Heath reuniting for the first time in decades) and gravity (the arrival of COVID-19 and the fate of sessions hanging in the balance).
As bandleader, Skaff has issued albums such as Ellington Boulevard (2004), East Harlem Skyline (2008) and Soulmation (2017). He's also recorded and/or performed with greats such as Stanley Turrentine, Freddie Hubbard, David "Fathead" Newman, Matt Wilson, Ben Allison and Ruth Brown.
Skaff spoke with KMUW's Jedd Beaudoin about his early days in the Wichita music scene and the sessions that birthed Polaris.
Jedd Beaudoin: You grew up in Wichita, and I'm curious about your early musical experiences. Did you start in cover bands or with original material?
Greg Skaff: With my first band, we were just doing mostly covers. I think we were together maybe two-and-half or three years. We played covers and were just getting into writing music. It was a rock band; we used to get together in my parents' basement. I was in about three or four other bands with different people.
There were a lot of gigs back then, in bars or what they called clubs. There was some sort of weird arrangement where you would pay money to become a member of a club. I don't remember what it was exactly but there was a distinction between a bar and a club. In those bands, we played all around Kansas and Kansas City. We traveled to Denver for a summer and lived there.
That must have been the early '80s.
No, that was even earlier. I moved to New York in 1980.
That was probably before the drinking age became 21 because I know that that was kind of a golden era for live music. You could actually make a living playing in those rooms.
I'm pretty sure I supported myself doing that. I probably made about the same money that some people make now with the way that gigs pay.
Was jazz already on your radar when you went to college?
Even before I went to college there was a member of one of my bands and his parents had a record collection. We used to go up to his bedroom and listen to all kinds of music. Rock, I mean. We'd be listening to The Who and Led Zeppelin, but we'd also listen to Chicago blues, Magic Sam, plus BB King, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf. We'd dip into his father's record collection. He had some Charlie Parker records. I knew so little about jazz, but I think the first cut I heard was from a Charlie Parker record and called "She Rote." I remember thinking, "This must be Dixieland because it sounds really happy."
We had a friend who worked in a record store or maybe the record department of Kmart. We would get records from him. There was a Sam Rivers record, Elvin Jones records; gradually we got turned on to that stuff. There was another really influential person I met around that time, [keyboardist] Mike Finnigan [Crosby, Stills, Nash, Bonnie Raitt], who lived in Wichita at the time. He had a band called The Serfs, who had a record deal with [Capitol Records]. While they were in New York recording, Mike was recruited to play on Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland. He played organ on that.
When Mike came back to Wichita, he became something of a mentor to me. He used to come down to my parents' basement and sort of coach us while we were practicing. In fact, I can remember him teaching me how to tune my guitar with harmonics.
Mike turned me onto a couple of records. The Jimi Hendrix record and then a George Benson record. When I heard those records, I didn't even understand them. I was not aware at the time what you could do with a guitar. Especially the Hendrix record. I thought that it was something more, not just a guitar. Mike was really influential, and I gradually got interested in jazz and liked the challenge of it. I started really listening more intently to jazz.
I listened to Miles Davis and then I started listening to the guitar players in jazz, like Charlie Christian. I found out that there were some other jazz players in town. and I would try to get together with them. It was kind of hard. I didn't get many of those gigs, but I did hang out with some of those people. I remember a friend of mine used to go out, near the airport, to a club called the Canterbury Inn.
My friend said, "You've got to come out there with me. There's this old black guy who plays and sings. It's really good." We'd go out there and listen to this guy and it was really good. That was [jazz great] Jay McShann. We had no idea who he was or his historical significance. He played but he would mostly be singing, playing country tunes, really radio-friendly stuff.
I remember them playing this break song, and I thought, "Wow, that's really cool." Later, I realized that was "Air Mail Special," which was a Charlie Christian song that Benny Goodman recorded. I started putting together this historical chronology. The bass player in his group was Claude "Fiddler" Williams, who played with Count Basie. He was playing an electric Danelectro bass with Jay. I don't remember the drummer's last name; his first name was Paul, but it was just a trio with bass. I think Jay was just playing a Spinet piano, whatever happened to be in the place.
You mentioned Charlie Parker and, when I listened to "Old Devil Moon" on the new record I was struck by how much your playing seemed influenced by the horn.
Totally. I almost didn't want to record that tune because it seems like the essential version is Sonny Rollins' from the record A Night at the Village Vanguard. Horn players and piano players seem to be in the vanguard as far as the innovations in jazz. Guitar players, too, but in their own way.
How did you go about assembling the material that's on Polaris?
I didn't put too many originals on there. I felt like if I had Ron Carter and Tootie Heath, it wouldn't be that important to have them play my originals. But I did put a few of my tunes on there. The first one, "Mr. RC," I'd written for Ron. I'd been playing in his big band since 2014. There were a few that I'd been playing on gigs in a trio context around New York City, like the two Duke Ellington songs, "Angelica" and "Lady of the Lavender Mist." "Yesterdays" was a song that I'd been playing for a while. I actually wrote and recorded a song of my own that's written over the form of that called "Baku." I recorded that a while back. But I wanted to play "Yesterdays" because I wanted to have Ron play the melody on that. I thought that would be really cool. It seemed like the melody of "Yesterdays" would lend itself to being heard on bass. "Polaris" was something I wrote after listening to a friend of mine, Vic Juris, who passed away a few years ago. There's a song of his called "To John," that was dedicated to John Abercrombie. I was really struck by that song, so I learned it. After goofing around with it, I came up with something else and that became "Polaris."
I wanted to record a couple of Ron's songs that I had heard him play with his group. There was this song that they'd play but they'd never announce it. I found out that was "Caminando," and I wanted to record that and then "Little Waltz." In the middle of his big band sets, he'd always break down to a trio with guitar, piano and bass. He'd always tell me to learn that song, but we'd never do it, so I wanted to record that.
Was the album done pre-pandemic? Did you wind up sitting on it for a while?
It was done in two sessions. The first session was done August of 2019. We did five songs then. I had the intention of doing a record, but I didn't know how it was going to go. I called Ron first, but I didn't have a date. He said he'd be down. I wasn't sure who I wanted to use on drums and, about that time, I walked into Smoke Jazz Club in New York City and Tootie was playing drums [but I can't remember who he was with]. Tootie lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, so you don't get to hear him in these parts that often. But I was really struck, really impressed by what he was doing. I thought he would be the perfect person to play with Ron.
I approached him that night after that after that gig. He was standing outside the club, so I walked out, and I introduced myself and said I wanted to record with him. Before I could say anything else, he said, "Yeah, but I'm tired. I want to go home. I'm waiting for a ride."
So I walked away but I kept thinking about it. And I got his number from his brother, Jimmy, who was alive at the time. And I just cold-called Tootie when he was home in Santa Fe. I think the only reason he signed on was because Ron was on board because I still remember several times he said, "I'm sure looking forward to recording with Ron Carter." I wasn't sure how it was going to go because they hadn't seen each other or played together in 30 years. They were part of the Riverside Reunion Band in the early '90s. Before that, I don't think they'd worked together since the early '60s when they were both members of Bobby Timmons' trio.
I didn't know Tootie before that first session, and I didn't know how Ron would be in the studio. I just picked five songs. We did them in a three-hour session, and we didn't really do many takes of each song. There's a couple where there's only one take of the song. It went pretty well and so I tried to arrange the second session.
It happened Tootie was going to be coming to New York for a memorial to his brother, Jimmy, that Jazz at Lincoln Center had put together. So I thought, "We'll do the second session then." But they were shutting down the city, and I didn't know if the session was going to happen. The memorial didn't happen and it was going to be a huge event and there was this demand that everybody shelter in place. But I asked Tootie if he'd still be into recording, and he said yes because he was feeling pretty bad about his brother's memorial being canceled. He said, "I want to do something on this trip. Otherwise, I would have come here for nothing." So he was down to make the second session. Ron was OK with it and the studio said they'd still be open. So we did the second session. Everybody had on a mask. There weren't many people in the studio.
A change from the first session.
There are two versions of "Little Waltz" on there because Tootie was late for the second session. I didn't know if he was going to come and things were in disarray because of the shelter in place order. I thought, "Maybe he's decided that he's just not going to do this." After about an hour of waiting, Ron said we could record as a duo. I thought, "Wow, that's encouraging." So Ron and I recorded the duo version of "Little Waltz" and, when we finished, Tootie came in and we did the trio version after that. I wanted to include both.
When you're in the room with two guys who have probably forgotten more about music than most people will ever know, do you have moments of, "They're here, playing on my record"?
That was probably in the back of my head the whole time I'm doing it. And actually, that was one of the reasons. I thought, "Man, I could do anything with these guys." I could just play standards with them, even though I wanted a couple of originals. But that thought did occur to me.
They were really gracious and helpful. They weren't overbearing. It was hard to ask people of their stature … Ron is kind of iconic … I didn't want to ask them for too much. But they were really good. Ron would say, "You know what? Let's do another take." Or he would say, "I'm sorry. That wasn't good. Let's do it again." They were really giving. And, you know, funny and everything else; there were a lot of jokes flying. In fact, the first session, they walked in together and were talking and laughing. I knew it would go well then.
You all played so beautifully on the record. Did you have a sense, during the sessions, how well it was going?
I don't think I noticed that until after I listened to playback. With the first session, I was sort of a little on edge because I didn't know how it would go. We didn't' listen to any playbacks. Ron is actually famous for that, not listening to playback. I remember I said, "You want to listen to that?" and he would just twirl his finger around, "Let's keep going." That's another reason that the sessions didn't last very long. There were two three-hour sessions but we didn't even use all three hours. So I wasn't really aware of how well it was going because I couldn't listen to playbacks.
Do you think that inclination that Ron has of not wanting to listen back to things comes from the tendency that some people have to listen back and then overthink their performance?
Yeah. I think he's the opposite of that. He's into capturing the moment, and he's not concerned with perfection. Which is cool because I've noticed sometimes in recordings, if I'm doing a recording and we do too many takes, there's sort of this the Law of Diminishing Returns kind of kicks in; somehow you start overthinking and you sort of lose purpose or something. There's usually something in the first couple takes, even though they're not perfect.
I've never asked him about it, but it might also be a result of so many sessions he's done. He is the most recorded jazz bassist in history, according to the Guinness Book of Records. But besides those records, I know he's played on countless jingles. When you record jingles there's always this element of time; they really only do one or two takes of those. So maybe that's the result of just his whole history.
You've spent some time teaching guitar. There are some people who feel that they're not cut out for it and others who really tap into. It's magic for them.
I really like teaching. I can see why some people don't like doing it because it can be draining. If you do it right, it can be draining. It seems to me that you have to ask yourself questions you haven't asked in a long time because those are the questions people might ask you. I taught for a year at Sarah Lawrence College. Not just guitar lessons but also jazz history. For a couple, other classes I would always take the work home with me in the sense that I would be thinking when I wasn't teaching, I would think about things I could do. I remember when I was coming up and taking guitar lessons … there were things that I wanted to know. So, if someone wants to know them, I'm eager to teach people and it's rewarding. Even if your students don't go on to become notable, they're not professionals, it's satisfying to share that with someone.