"The Cutting Edge" comprises a program chock-a-block with challenging originals and reharmonized standards, performed by a collective sextet of world-class improvisers that was formed for this session. Veteran pianist Andy Laverne, more than 40 musical projects under his belt, stepped in to serve as acting music director, imparting cohesion and flow to the proceedings. Not that the band -- elite veterans of the New York scene who had crossed paths at various points -- needed much help finding common ground on which to operate.
"We have like minds in our stylistic sensibilities with music," Laverne comments. "All of us, in one way or another, are always looking to uncover new ways of expressing music, and we're coming out of similar backgrounds at the core of what influenced us, with the Miles Davis Quintet and John Coltrane Quartet of the '60s as the starting point. Not that we're ignorant of what preceded it by any means, but that's where we started our formative years."
Let's hear Professor Laverne on his cohorts: "Steve Davis has a lot of Elvin and Jack DeJohnette, but he's melded both influences into a very unique style. He's definitely a stylist, a colorist to the highest degree who can propel a band amazingly and also engage in a lot of interplay, which is a great combination.
"Jay Anderson is bedrock, unfailingly solid and dependable, with amazing ability as a soloist and a capacity for rhythmic interplay. He isn't just a functional bass player. He's always part of the ensemble while driving it forward."
Responding to a comment that trumpeter Tim Hagans offers his own conclusions on prime-time Freddie Hubbard, Laverne adds, "And Woody Shaw with a touch of Miles perhaps. He's a strong individualistic player with an unusual way of approaching changes. I've recorded a lot with Tim and he's played on a bunch of my tunes, but I still have not been able to unlock his method of playing over changes.
"Conrad Herwig is unusual also in that, given the instrument he plays, he has similar sensibilities to Tim. He's a very angular player. Though he'll do things that are unique to the trombone, the larger picture of his conception, harmonically and melodically, is influenced more by saxophonists and pianists than by people who preceded him on that instrument -- more Coltrane than J.J. Johnson or Curtis Fuller.
"Speaking of Coltrane, that's a perfect segue to Walt Weiskopf, because he wrote one of the main books on Coltrane ["Coltrane: A Player's Guide To Understanding His Harmony"]. He's well-schooled and flexible, with a singular voice that comes out of the Coltrane style, but unquestionably in his own direction."
Some improvisers start off with intense formal training before jazz grabs them; others start off with an ear orientation, and come to theory later. "I was the former rather than the latter," the 51-year-old Bronx native remarks. "I started studying at Juilliard when I was 6, and was classically trained, not only in playing the piano, but in theory and composition. I had a pretty strong traditional harmony background before I ever got into jazz. I was about 13 when I first heard jazz [Thelonious Monk's Monk's Dream], but I had no understanding of it and the harmonic component completely mystified me. That's probably one reason why I'm so harmonically oriented and have done such extensive research and study and analysis, was just trying to figure it out -- how to voice chords and so on.
"That's a major problem for someone who's making the leap from Classical to Jazz, because the vernacular is so different than in traditional harmony. For instance, the use of Roman numerals is the way chords are expressed in traditional harmony. You never see that in lead sheets; you only see letter names without any function given to them other than if it's, let's say, a dominant 7th or a minor 7th. In other words, if I saw a progression in traditional harmony, it would be more specific and I would kind of know how to play it. In jazz, you might see a G7 chord; you can voice that a million different ways."
Laverne's approach to Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island" and Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" -- iconic landmarks of '60s composition -- is indicative of of his mature conception. "'Cantaloupe Island' isn't a real radical reharmonization," he notes. "I changed the last chord, and added several bars. I based my comping on composite chords -- or scale-tone chords -- which I've been developing lately. My goal with recent reharmonizations is to freshen things up while keeping them still quite familiar. My older reharmonizations were usually quite far removed from the original.
"My version of 'Footprints' was more influenced by Wayne's original version on 'Adam's Apple' than the Miles Davis version. It's a disguised minor blues. At the end of the first phrase I modulated down a half-step, and then reharmonized the descending line at the end of the tune; I also changed some things in the melody. Wayne is a very significant composer, because he's one of the first who got away from functional harmony. He broke the shackles of the II-V-I progression, and got into what's known as 'arbitrary root movement,' which led him to more colors than you hear in traditional tunes based on Tin Pan Alley changes. Even when Wayne was working in more familiar forms, his writing was so unique that it made it unfamiliar.
"Herbie may have been less radical than Wayne in his writing, but certainly no less radical in his playing. They're both hard to pigeonhole, extremely flexible, and their styles can cover a wide variety of music. They are hard to duplicate also because they're not as codified as some other players, maybe like Coltrane, who in certain ways had more structure. Wayne and Herbie seem to be more extemporaneous."
A few years after Laverne heard "Cantaloupe Island" ("I played it 8 billion times"), he embarked on lessons with Bill Evans. "I was about 19, and by that point Bill was pretty much all I listened to," he relates. "Whenever he played in town, I was there every night. Once at the Vanguard I overheard him telling someone he'd just moved into an apartment in Riverdale, where I lived, and I somehow got up the courage to go up and speak to him. As a result, I ended taking several lessons with him. Ultimately, I think he was extremely effective, though by my current teaching standards I would say he really didn't show me very much. He spoke more conceptually, not about specific theoretical things -- voicings or scales or the use or application of those things. I only realized fairly recently that those lessons with Bill had the major impact on everything that I do."
Laverne's writing displays a rigorous intellect at the service of lyric, intense melodicism. To wit, his arrangement of "Yesterdays". "It's an orchestration of an arrangement I developed for a Maybeck solo recording a few years ago," he explains. "In a nutshell, the ascending line at the beginning of the tune I modulate up a minor third. then bring it back to the original key at the end. It's a standard almost everybody has played at one point or another, and I wanted to do something a little different.
"'Code Bleu' is a 12-bar blues with slightly twisted harmonies -- not your standard I-IV-V blues.
"'Cutting Edge' was written to match the title. Everyone on their instrument I think of as a cutting edge player, and I tried to come up with something energetic that the guys could really plug into. It went through several incarnations melodically and harmonically, more complicated at first, becoming simpler as it progressed. It's a 40-bar tune with a repeated figure at the beginning, then goes through a set of V-I progressions leading to a four-bar line over a descending whole-tone bass line that leads back to C-minor."
"Secret of The Andes" was previously recorded on "Modern Days And Nights," Laverne's previous Double-Time recording, under the title "A Cole Porter Flat." "John Patitucci gets credit for the title, though he probably doesn't know it," Laverne laughs. "It's in two sections, with a vamp in the beginning that's actually part of the tune's form, and then the melodic part."
Tim Hagans offers the ingenious "Space Dozen," a ominous blues based on a 12-note tone row that opens with an imaginative polyphonic improvisation by the horns. "Tim wanted us to play free, but be thinking of a blues, which we all tried to do," Laverne comments. "There are no chords; it's just a melodic line.
Conrad Herwig -- a long-time Eddie Palmieri sideman whose "Latin Side of John Coltrane" from 1997 received much acclaim -- contributes the anthemic "Our Destiny." Laverne comments: "It was great to play on this, because none of us were able to bring the Latin feeling to the band as well as Conrad did. Obviously, it's a lot of fun to play."
Walt Weiskopf's immediately recognizable horn voicings mark his session-concluding arrangement of Cole Porter's "Get Out of Town." "Walt's writing is almost like a miniaturized big band," Laverne enthuses. "He's a more involved arranger than I; he puts in lots of ensemble detail, whereas my writing is more about harmonization."
With 40 dates under his sleeve, where does "Cutting Edge" rank in Laverne's oeuvre? "I think it's the first time that I've been at the helm of a sextet, so to speak," he states. "It was nice to have the opportunity to work with three horn players of this caliber in an ensemble setting like this, to have those colors at my disposal."
What might a band like this achieve in an ideal world, if they could tour several months a year? "I think the possibilities would be unlimited," Laverne responds. "There's so much creativity bundled up in this band, really the sky is the limit. In terms of interpreting standards, jazz classics, and certainly doing originals, this is merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg."
Ted Panken - Sept. ‘99