by Bob Doerschuk, Keyboard magazine, Musician magazine, Downbeat, Relix
As goals go, you would think that recording a jazz trio project isn’t that elusive. For jazz composer and pianist Bob Schlesinger, though, that dream was his Golden Fleece.
Of course, he has accomplished much in and beyond music. Serving briefly in his twenties as director of operations with the pioneering audio company Soundstream, Schlesinger participated in early digital recording sessions with major orchestras in the United States and Europe, years before CDs hit the market. He spearheaded various bands that have dug deep into the gardens of straight-ahead jazz, jazz fusion, jazz/funk and other nuanced genres. He recorded solo, as half of a duo, in quartet and larger formats and in music-meets-poetry extemporizations with poet Jim Cohn. He opened for James Brown, Earth Wind & Fire, Buddy Guy and other headliners as accompanist to blues/R&B/jazz diva Hazel Miller. He was even certified to teach the Feldenkrais Method of Somatic Education.
But as high as it was on his priority list, a trio album never happened … until now.
“I tried at least five times over 10 years to do a trio recording,” Schlesinger says. “A couple of times I moved my Baldwin concert grand to someone’s studio and let them use it so I could get free recording time. I did live recordings in a piano store with a remote. But something technically failed on every one of them, like a squeaky kick drum pedal leaking into the piano mic. Or tracks got lost. Or I didn’t notice that the piano wasn’t in tune. Yes, I should have taken care of that before the session. I guess some things you have to learn the hard way. Okay, most things!”
Schlesinger laughs. He can afford to now because, with his new album Brush Strokes, he makes his trio debut decisively and eloquently. On original tunes as well as covers enhanced by insightful new arrangements, Schlesinger delivers not just the realization of his dream but also one of the strongest three-piece efforts of the year.
Except for the parts of it that in fact feature four outstanding musicians. Aside from the thoughtful solo piano piece “Hard Times,” most of the selections feature Schlesinger, bass virtuoso Eddie Gomez and renowned drummer Billy Drummond. But on five of these we are treated as well to the routinely astonishing mastery of guitar wizard Mike Stern. During a three-day break in his tour with drummer David Weckl in late 2018, Stern flew out to Boulder for two days to track with Schlesinger, bassist Kim Stone and drummer Dean Oldencott. One cut from those dates, “Brush Stroke,” closes this album.
So you might think of Brush Strokes as an augmented quartet project. However you count it, though, it’s terrific music with a fascinating backstory.
It begins, of course, with Schlesinger himself. Born in Topeka, Kansas, he moved at age 12 with his family to Denver, Colorado, when his father had accepted a position as a professor of psychology with the University of Colorado Medical Center. By that time Bob was already immersed in music. Beginning as a child, when his mother taught him to play “My Country ’tis Of Thee” on the family piano, he began looking past the classical music that was the soundtrack of his household. He got his first taste of jazz in junior high school when he bought the Tijuana Brass album Whipped Cream And Other Delights. Shortly after that, he discovered rock ’n’ roll, got a few early electric keyboards and started playing Deep Purple, Allman Brothers, and other covers with a band he remembers fondly as “pretty bad.”
After enrolling at the University of Colorado and moving to Boulder, Schlesinger widened his ears through his dormitory friends’ record collections. “They were listening to the first electric Return To Forever album, Weather Report’s Sweetnighter, Jeff Beck’s Wired and Blow By Blow, and Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters,” he recalls. “The cool beatnik guy down the hall introduced me to Keith Jarrett’s Facing You, and Cookin’ and Relaxin’ With Miles.”
Schlesinger’s hunger to learn more, to play more, intensified. He sharpened his piano chops through the Continuing Education Department and then the the College of Music majoring in composition. Most critically, late in his freshman year he began studying with Ted Alexander, a respected and exacting jazz pedagogue who had himself learned directly from the great Bill Evans, among others.
“So I was taking jazz lessons from Ted and classical piano lessons from a doctoral student,” Schlesinger remembers. “In my undergrad music program I was taking individual lessons in composition, scoring and arranging, so that’s five private lessons each week plus classes. And I was pulling all-nighters for a week at a time. I was a busy mo’fo.’”
Over time Schlesinger drew much from this diverse curriculum that he could fit together into a more personalized vision. “My first theory teacher took it upon himself to teach a section on thematic development, using Beethoven’s Fifth,” he says “I still think about that all the time, that idea of building and developing from a single idea, although these days I’m also interested in deconstructing it. And from Ted I learned about chromaticism: At what point is it just alterations to tonality and at what point is it truly atonal?”
As he practiced his writing and playing, Schlesinger drew from what he’d absorbed to create his own exercises. “I started playing around with the Pachelbel Canon, trying to improvise four-point counterpoint. Then I switched to doing the same thing with the ‘I Got Rhythm’ changes, with various kinds of voice-leading.
And he filled his calendar with gigs. Calls started coming in from local theater and film companies, offering commissions for original music. He picked up a lot of work playing with funk, reggae and R&B bands, appearing often as the only white guy onstage in “social clubs for middle-aged, middle-class black folk,” as Schlesinger recalls. Relocated to Denver, where he would eventually earn an MBA with a music business focus, he led his own bands while also doing one-night shows as a first-call sub. “I did five years in a tuxedo, hauling my gear through the back hallways of hotels to play weddings,” he jokes.
Some of his work picked up traction. After grad school in 1986, he cut an album with his group Rebop. With Tsunami from 1989 to ’94, he recorded three more albums and toured through the Midwest out to California and over to the Netherlands. From 2011 through ’17 he recorded and did live albums with the jazz/funk unit Purple Squirrel. He has also piloted his own quartets and, yes, trios in Colorado.
There’s much more to Schlesinger’s story, but the point is that all of this experience helped him chart the course that would lead to Brush Strokes, partly by enabling his encounters with the musicians who helped make it happen.
Begin with Mike Stern. Schlesinger got his first taste of the guitarist’s artistry on the Michael Brecker album Don’t Try This At Home. In 1988, after his father had relocated to Manhattan, he began making pilgrimages to hear Stern at the 55 Bar when in town. So, in advance of Brush Strokes, after recording “Left Field,” a Purple Squirrel tune at his home studio with Fareed Haque, and deciding to add a guitar, he cold-called Stern, who agreed to sit in on the session.
Schlesinger got to know Eddie Gomez in 2009, when they both performed at a concert honoring Ted Alexander. “Because of Ted’s relationship with Bill Evans, he had played with Eddie,” Schlesinger explains. “I was almost too afraid to ask if we could record sometime, but he said sure. Then every time Eddie came to town he would say to me, ‘When are we recording?’”
That question would be answered by Pathways To Jazz, an organization dedicated to helping fund recording projects by Colorado-based musicians. When they approved Schlesinger’s grant application, the gears started turning and in September 2018, with Billy Drummond on drums based on Gomez’s recommendation, the tape began rolling at New York’s SeerSound Studio.
There’s a story behind every verse, sometimes even every note, on Brush Strokes. The Thad Jones waltz “A Child Is Born” was the first tune Schlesinger and Gomez did together, at the Ted Alexander tribute. When his colleagues insisted he include one solo piano number, Schlesinger obliged with the reflective “Hard Times,” which he had first improvised behind a Jim Cohn poetry recitation. Another Schlesinger original is a contrafact — a new melody set over the chord changes of another tune, in this case Cole Porter’s “I Love You.” Its title, “But What Do You Want To Play,” harks to an old bandstand joke: When the leader of a group would call for “I Love You” as their next number, someone would reply, “I know, but what do you want to play?”
“Suspone” is a Mike Stern tune which, though he played it with Michael Brecker 30-odd years ago and cut it with the DR Big Band on Chromozone, the guitarist had never included on one of his own releases; when Schlesinger stretches out, it’s instructive to follow the band as it pushes beyond the patterns of its crisp post-bop groove to feed the solo. “The idea is to leave space within the solo so other players can contribute and not just be accompanists,” Schlesinger explains. “It also leads to having some great musical dialogs with Mike.”
To show another side of Stern as a writer and instrumentalist, Schlesinger included “Common Ground” on Brush Strokes. “Mike is known for his blazing guitar playing,” he points out. “But his albums always include a ballad or two that will break your heart. ‘Common Ground’ is one of those.”
Dylan fans will appreciate Schlesinger’s treatment of “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” a product of his ability to find common threads in varied fabrics. The song popped up one night in a dream of his, which prompted him to seek different versions of the tune. From Billy Preston’s he adapted a funky sequence of chords on the verses. Dylan’s own set at the Newport Folk Festival inspired a Mississippi blues flavoring. Outside influences seeped in as well, including light cymbal textures that reflected an ECM aesthetic. It is to their credit, and especially to Schlesinger’s, quest for new perspectives that trigger fresh emotional responses.
More from these sessions will follow, beginning later this year, with an album that includes five tracks from Stern’s sessions in Boulder and an ambitious “frankentune” inspired by Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson, As Wichita Falls … and other landmark albums. For now, it’s enough to savor Brush Strokes, a milestone on the road to wherever this unique musician wants to go next.
“It’s all about focusing on my own music now,” he sums up. “I’m taking fewer outside gigs these days because I’m at that point in life when some people go, ‘Damn, I wish I’d done that.’ I don’t want to look back that way. I’m only looking ahead.”