dtrcd163.jpg (35233 bytes)

Tim Armacost - The Wishing Well

DTRCD - 163

Tim Armacost - Tenor Sax
Bruce Barth - Sax
Ray Drummond - Bass
Billy Hart - Drums

1. Body and Soul
2. Sustenance
3. Crescent
4. Black Sand Beach
5. Wishing Well
6. Special Delivery
Total Time (65:42)

Listen to CD Tracks

Fluent in Japanese and Dutch, a student of Zen Buddhism and the arcane mysteries of harmonic syntax, California-born Tim Armacost is a musician who regards the notion of playing it safe as an oxymoron.  On “The Wishing Well”, the 37-year-old tenor saxophonist plays with vocalized tone, fluid time conception, melodic integrity and focused intensity, reaffirming his stature as one of his generation’s leading lights.  Recorded two-thirds through a December 1998 European tour with a like-minded world class band (pianist Bruce Barth, bassist Ray Drummond and trapsetter Billy Hart) that intuitively understands how to navigate the fine line between freedom and discipline, the session radiates the tight-loose, stretched-out aura that only a working unit of masters who trust each other implicitly can achieve.

    The son of a diplomat and a music teacher, Armacost spent his formative years in Los Angeles, Tokyo and Washington, D.C.  He committed to the clarinet at 8, and switched to saxophone at 15 to get into his suburban D.C. high school band.  An older band-mate took the young aspirant to Blues Alley to hear Stan Getz and Dexter Gordon, and the sense of music as language was born.  “I can still remember the feeling of watching Stan,” Armacost recalls from Copenhagen over the transcontinental wire, three-quarters of the way through a winter 2000 jaunt of consecutive one-nighters through Germany and Denmark.  “I didn’t know where the head ended and the improvisation started, but I knew that the whole product was incredibly beautiful, and I wanted to find out more.  When I went to college in Pomona, California, I met my first real jazz teacher, the vibraphonist Charlie Shoemake.  Every week he would give me a transcription of a solo, comp the changes onto a tape, I would learn the tune and a solo, and learn to play my own solo over the tune — it was sort of a three-part process.  I studied with him for two years, then I went to Japan, where I studied the Japanese language and Zen Buddhism, then came back and studied with Charlie for one more year.

    “Charlie was the first true master I met.  During the first lesson he was able to test my harmonic knowledge in a way that made him immediately aware of where I was and what I needed to do.  I described to him what I wanted.  I said, ‘I want to learn how to play long, beautiful, flowing lines.’ Then he said, ‘Is this what you mean?’ — and he put on Sonny Rollins’ solo on ‘Mambo Bounce.’  It was EXACTLY what I wanted — extremely inspiring.  When Charlie picked up the vibes to demonstrate what he was talking about, you could feel the force of authority in his playing.  You knew he’d put in the hours, done the work, and was bringing the grammar of the music alive.”

    After graduating Magna Cum Laude in 1985 with a degree in Asian Studies on the strength of a senior thesis “about the transfer of Zen Buddhism from India to China and Japan and now east again to the States,” Armacost made his way to Amsterdam.  For seven years he flourished in the amiable environment of the canal-ringed city, where rarely intersecting cliques of hardcore bop-oriented improvisers and irony-drenched avant-gardists ruled the jazz roost.

    “It was a very productive time,” Armacost reflects.  “From the age of 22, I was working jazz gigs, making my living as a musician and a teacher.  My first couple of years in Holland were solitary; it was about mastering the saxophone and getting some tunes under my belt — preparing myself to be a professional saxophone player.  The natural people for me to link up with were the beboppers, but after intensely studying the bebop style with Charlie for three years, I was ready for something different.  I wound up being maybe 60% with the boppers and 40% with the free guys.  In Amsterdam I played with Han Bennink, Michael Moore and Michael Vatcher; I never did play with Misha Mengelberg, although we both taught at the Sweelinck Conservatory.  What I didn’t like was having to be in one camp or the other.  For me, it was all music; it’s either good or it’s not.  The Amsterdam school was famous for being the one that was most focused on being free, and in my teaching experience, I was sort of the representative of bebop in a free school.  I was teaching my students what my teacher taught me, which is the language of Bop — learn how to play what Sonny Rollins played and what Freddie Hubbard played and what Bud Powell played.  I had quite a few students who were coming to me for language, even though the bands they were playing with were free.  I would encourage them to stress discipline and freedom equally.  My focus was always to try to help the individual find himself.

    “In the end I got tired of trying to walk that tightrope all the time, and I just wanted to come home and be in an environment where you didn’t have to be in one camp or the other — you just play your music.  Around that time is when Joe Lovano hit the scene pretty hard; he was doing that kind of thing, and sort of pointed the way.”

    On the way to New York, Armacost took a detour to India, where he spent a year in Delhi with his fiance (now wife) studying the tropes of Hindustani music with tabla master Vijay Ateet.  “Learning some Indian music showed me a completely different approach to form,” Armacost states.  “A lot of the compositions I wrote before I went to India were the standard ABA or AABA 32-bar song forms.  I saw in India that you could approach form in an entirely different way, that I can let the melody suggest the form instead of trying to fit the melody into a form.  When I write now, I use a lot more odd meter, more open form and more non song form, though I still perform with the song forms.

    “One of the most exciting things about studying music in India is that spirituality is a totally natural and expected part of the music there.  Religion is much more part of everyday life.  I had met a Zen master when I lived in Japan in ’83, so I wasn’t looking for a guru.  Being in India more helped me confirm that I was walking in a direction that was good for me.  I knew that direction was out there from knowing about the history of Trane and Sonny Rollins, but it was nice to experience it myself.”

 Armacost arrived in New York at 30, a mature man with enough unusual life experience to have begun to find a voice of his own.  He observes: “By the time I arrived in New York I’d worked through sounding exactly like Sonny Rollins and doing my studying, so I already had my direction, whereas if I’d arrived there when I was 22 or 23 I probably would have joined the ranks of guys who were going in a direction together.  I didn’t feel I sounded like everybody else.”  He hung out at high connoisseurship spots like Smalls and Augie’s where the Apple’s young talent gathered to network and display their wares.  Though Smalls is where Armacost began emerging as leader (“Live At Smalls,” DT-131, is Armacost’s first Double-Time release), he began to gravitate towards a session on Brooklyn’s Dean Street led by saxman Craig Bailey that young iconoclasts like Antonio Hart, Jorge Sylvester, Derrick Gardner, Orrin Evans, Eric Lewis, Ali Jackson and Nasheet Waits attended regularly.  “I’d go to Dean Street and feel like I was being pushed and pushed and pushed,” Armacost laughs.  “In Amsterdam you had discipline in the bebop guys and freedom in the free guys, but very few of the free guys were disciplined musicians, and very few of the good bebop players were willing to be free.  On Dean Street I heard guys going for that balance, and it helped me keep going on that path.”

    While Armacost didn’t address John Coltrane on Live At Smalls, his vocabulary and spirit permeates the ambiance of “The Wishing Well”.  One standout is a fiery extended interpretation of Coltrane’s “Crescent”; another is a medium-slow 3/4 version of “Body and Soul” inspired by Coltrane’s changes on “Coltrane’s Sound.”  “Coltrane certainly comes out,” Armacost acknowledges, “but that wasn’t a conscious choice.  It’s simply the music I was interested in then.  I knew about ‘Giant Steps’ when I was 15 or 16, and wanted to learn more about Trane.  I went to a store without getting any advice, and got "Live In Seattle", and the next thing I heard was "Ascension!"  So a good five years went by before I was ready to sort of check out Coltrane again.  While I was living in Amsterdam, a friend, Peter Guidi, introduced me to the great ’62-’65 period of his music, which had a profound impact.  I didn’t study his language like I had with Sonny Rollins'; I didn’t transcribe very many Coltrane solos.  But certainly the level of freedom and energy and polyrhythm of the rhythm section connected deeply with me.”

    You’d be hard pressed to find a contemporary rhythm section more suited to articulate those qualities than Bruce Barth, Ray Drummond and Billy Hart.  The leader conjures a chorus on what appeals to him about each chair.

    “What I think makes Bruce Barth [see ‘Don’t Blame Me’ (DT-129) and ‘Hope Springs Eternal’ (DT-143)] a great player is his touch at the piano,” Armacost notes.  “Touch is what lets you know whether he’s playing emotion or playing information.  Bruce is playing emotion all the time, which I love.  He’s also a very empathic accompanist.

    “I learned a lot about melody from Ray Drummond.  One of the highlights of the record is his solo on ‘The Wishing Well.’  He played an 8-bar section that redefined the melody for the tune.  Ray consistently improvises with a living sense of balance and simplicity, which makes a fantastic foundation for the music.”

    “Billy Hart had just returned to New York after several years in Washington when I arrived there, and he was often in the same places I was in, letting people know he was back, while I was looking around to see what New York was all about.  I saw him and heard him sit in a lot.  I had a very strong feeling that the way he plays time is particularly beautiful and unique to him, and finally I approached him and said, ‘I’d like to have you play on my first record’ [‘Fire’ (Concord-4697)].  He asked me, ‘Why?’ I told him that I thought he was a master drummer, and I wanted to find out what it was like to play with one of them — particularly him.  He agreed to do it, and we’ve worked together often since.  What I learned the most from Jabali on the tour was his willingness and ability always to approach the music in a new way, his willingness not to try to recreate what he’s just done, how deeply in the moment he is.

    “On ‘Body and Soul’ I love the way Billy puts his stamp on the second half of each phrase in the bridge; it emerged from us playing together on the stand. ‘Crescent’ is my favorite Trane record, and I’ve been wanting to play some of the music from it for a while.  Instead of playing it in a more quiet, contemplative way, I decided to approach the melody aggressively.  I love the way Billy and Ray and Bruce made that happen.  ‘Crescent’ is a good indication of that direction of trying to merge a free-sounding quality with a very disciplined approach to playing in time.”

    Armacost’s four originals convey a vivid sense of current preoccupations.  “Sustenance” (the tune is filled with bright-sounding sus-chords) is an optimistic, joyful melody, while “Black Sand Beach” is an attractive fast samba, and “Special Delivery,” a bop-Latin line played at bullet-train-speed, is for Armacost’s son, Zachary, now 3.  The title track, a lovely rubato song, “was written for a friend’s wedding — to wish them well in their marriage; I think only this band could play it at this tempo.  Billy Hart played with Shirley Horn, and he was able to take that very slow but still moving feeling, and give it to this tune, which I’m very grateful for.”
    Tim Armacost aspires to creative expression at the highest level of craft and imaginative heat; he nurtures his muse with a pragmatic mindset and self-knowledge that allow him to sustain work and build a career.  A relentless, sure-footed traveller, his future is now, as the 66-minutes of inspired music comprising “The Wishing Well” makes clear in no uncertain terms.