Listen to his latest release, Breathing Room, and you’ll understand what he means. This is real jazz, eminently listenable, but it’s not your father’s straight-ahead bebop. The harmonic structure of the songs, written mostly by Weiss, is much more complex than "your typical 2/5/1 kind of thing" says Weiss. Much of his sense for composition comes from Wayne Shorter, who David considers to be "the ideal small group composer, the best [at] ‘hard bop’ from 1960 on." It is the difficult interlacing of clear, enjoyable ensemble melodies with unconventional harmonics and unusual song forms that David strives for. On the basis of Breathing Room and his earlier recordings with the New Jazz Composers Octet (First Steps Into Reality and Walkin’ the Line), he is largely succeeding.
JazzReview caught up with David on a recent Thursday afternoon, just before he had to run to yet another rehearsal in New York.
JazzReview: David, tell us how you first got involved in music. How did you get started, and what were your early influences?
David Weiss: It was a long path. I started playing piano, but I didn’t really want to take piano lessons. I was a kid and I wanted to play baseball or basketball or something like that. But I had to play something and all the school had was a concert band. I wanted to play bass or drums, but that got nixed, so I just chose the trumpet. I grew up in the late 70s in Queens, when [the popular music] was very hard rock Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath so I never heard music that applied [specifically to the trumpet]. In my later years in high school, I started to get more into fusion. One of my classmates started turning me on to Miles Davis stuff, and Eddie Henderson had made a couple of fusion records and that were really cool. I actually went to art school for a semester and there they started turning me on to more free jazz Cecil Taylor and stuff like that. And since I was hearing stuff that the trumpet had something to do with, I started playing more. I came back to New York and started looking for a proper music school.
JazzReview: You ended up at North Texas State University. How did you find your way there from New York?
David Weiss: When I was looking at music schools, there was basically just Berklee and North Texas State. If the New School or William Patterson had been a little more prominent then, I might not ever have left New York. I had no idea at that time that Branford Marsalis and all those people were leaving Berklee. It was known as a guitar school then. Before I figured out what I wanted to do, I went to a clinic put on by a vibes player named Carl Berger at place called the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, New York. I met a trumpet player there who played like Don Cherry, and he played really well. He told me he went to North Texas State. That’s how I heard of the school and that it was big, so I ended up going there. The other thing is, at that clinic, I was exposed to more avant-garde playing. In addition to Carl, there were guys like Frank Lowe, John Zorn. Jimmy Giuffre (composer of Four Brothers, the jazz tune made famous by Woody Herman and the Thundering Heard) lived up there and he told me I had some interesting ideas, and that maybe I should learn something about harmony.
JazzReview: So was it during your time at North Texas that you developed your interest in composition and arranging?
David Weiss: Not at all! I had no idea. I got my degree and got in my car and drove back to New York. I didn’t really know anybody-I mean I knew the survival techniques in New York, but I didn’t know any jazz people at all really. I just came here and said ‘Oh, I’m a trumpet player, let me go.’ I had no idea what was ahead, how much I would have to diversify. The composing and arranging, that came later. I took one mandatory arranging class at North Texas. The arranging teacher told me to ‘get out of music!’ I was transcribing a lot of music at school. I went to school with Craig Handy. We had a band there and we used to practice together all the time. We transcribed a lot of Wayne Shorter tunes and Art Blakey stuff. That’s kind of how it started here [in New York]. People heard that I’d done that before. It just kind of grew out of people needing tunes for their record dates. I’ve had a transcription, arrangement, or composition now on about 80 records.
JazzReview: What was it about Wayne Shorter’s compositional work that grabbed you?
David Weiss: It still grabs me. Wayne, to me, is just the ideal small group composer the best at hard bop from 1960 on, by far, in my humble opinion. I’ve been going back and looking at some of his early works. When he was writing for the Jazz Messengers, he always wrote very melodic tunes, but the harmony got a little trickier, a little more complex not the typical II-V-I kind of thing. Sometimes the words just fail it’s just better! It’s just the combination of melody and harmony. That’s one thing I’ve tried to retain from anything I’ve learned from Wayne Shorter. I’ve [also] been doing a lot of checking out of Booker Little. I’ve transcribed a lot of his tunes for a Booker Little gig I was doing for awhile, to get inside some of that music. It’s also some pretty intense music. The writing is very complex odd time signatures, changing meters, interesting harmonies but it still maintains a beautiful melody. An audience doesn’t care how complicated something is for a musician, so I don’t feel bad about writing a tune that has melody.
JazzReview: You’ve been touring with Freddie Hubbard. How would you describe his influence on your playing?
David Weiss: Freddie Hubbard was, without a doubt, the strongest trumpet player probably ever. The long solos, that sound but when I was learning the trumpet and harmony, I really listened to a lot more Kenny Dorham and Miles Davis. I listen to more Freddie now, but I don’t really hear him in my playing. I would have no problem with it if it were there! Freddie has taught me a lot. He was there, he played all those dates with Wayne [Shorter]. Anytime I can get a minute with any of those guys, it’s important to me. That’s where the music comes from, and there are less and less of them. The music suffers for it because [players today] don’t get any kind of training from them. When Freddie came up, the bar was raised about a 100 times higher than it is now. Those guys were complete musicians. They could write and play and they were amazing technicians on their instruments. Anytime you get in front of a guy like that, who came up in that, it’s frightening because it’s what you’re supposed to be doing.
JazzReview: David, you’ve just released your first CD as a leader, Breathing Room, with a sextet. How did you get the idea for this record and how did it come together?
David Weiss: Well there were two things. First, I accidentally wrote three or four sextet tunes. They were supposed to be octets, but they just kind of came out as sextets and so I thought I should play them. The second reason was the Strickland brothers (Marcus on tenor sax and E.J. on drums). I just heard these two young guys who could play, and really wanted to play. What I like is very specific. Musically, there’s a certain thing I look for, and not a lot of people play that way. The latest New Jazz Composers Octet (NJCO) record was called Walkin’ the Line because it’s not straight-ahead and it’s not avant-garde, but all the best music to me straddles the middle. It’s hard to find musicians who approach things that way, who have the harmonic knowledge and complexity that straight-ahead musicians have, but still have a sense of wonderment about it all. Now it seems like the hard bop/bebop of today has a lot of parameters to it. It seems to be more in a box, like all the decisions [about how and what to play] have been made already. So in addition to Marcus and E.J., I just grabbed all of my favorite guys Xavier Davis (piano), Dwayne Burno (bass) & Craig Handy (alto), and that’s how the sextet happened.
JazzReview: So where are you going with the NJCO? Are you going to return to recording with them?
David Weiss: Oh, the Octet is my main goal. I’m getting more comfortable with the sextet record. I’m glad I made it because I wrote a number of the tunes, but it was never a priority for me. We’re not near a Sonny Rollins, a John Coltrane, a Miles Davis, a Lee Morgan, a Freddie Hubbard, but jazz is still a very vital music. It’s still very exciting to hear. The possibilities are still endless. But how do you make your mark, how do you make a distinction, if you are a creative musician trying to make music that makes a difference? Am I going to do that by making 10 quartet records a year, or am I going to do that by putting together something that’s larger, that’s maybe a little different that people don’t hear every day and give promising writers an opportunity to expand their palette a little bit and help them realize their promise? We’re trying to be the best musicians we can be and find the best platform for it, and to me it’s the Octet. So that will always be a priority over my sextet and me.
JazzReview: I understand you recently produce Marcus Strickland’s latest CD, At Last (Fresh Sound/New Talent Records). Is this the first time you’ve been in the role of the producer?
David Weiss: Oh no, that’s about the tenth record I’ve produced. This was a Fresh Sound release. Jordi [Pujol, Fresh Sound Executive Producer] really likes the music when he hears something he likes, there’s no pretense. He says, ‘This is good, I want it, let’s go.’ He said to me, ‘There are a lot of good, young musicians in your band. I want to record them.’ So I started turning him on to people. Producing for me now really grows out of supporting ‘my guys.’ I can’t make them a million dollars or take them on the road, but I can get them a record date and help them get started. It helps music. It’s just a different time now most of the independent jazz record labels are trying to make a lot of money right away. It’s not like the old days of independent labels like Blue Note or Prestige they had a sound. A lot of the jazz labels today don’t have an identity. They ask you if you can have a singer or a guest star on some cuts [just because it helps sell records]. It’s not as much about the music or about just making a good record.
JazzReview: As you think about all the dimensions of music that you are involved in playing, arranging, composing, producing as you think ahead about what you want to do, is there any one of those areas you’d like to concentrate on?
David Weiss: Yeah, it’s very simple. I want to play trumpet. I’m a trumpet player. Everything else that happens, happens and it’s all a lot of fun and all, but the trumpet is a hard instrument and I need to spend a lot of time with it.
JazzReview: What is your practice routine like?
David Weiss: It’s actually just a lot of warm ups, a lot of physical stuff. I have long, physical workouts: a lot of flexibility, long tones, stuff like that. It evolves from there, usually to transcribing solos. I just do a lot of that every day.
JazzReview: You mentioned you were going to be in the studio tomorrow afternoon. Do you have a new project?
David Weiss: It’s more Fresh Sound/New Talent production. I just finished a new Marcus Strickland CD [At Last] it’s really good. Jordi, from Fresh Sound, has wanted to do a record with piano player Robert Glasper, who was the piano player for Marcus (Robert also covers piano for pop/urban singer Bilal). Robert has wanted time to really feel like he’s ready, and so he said ‘Okay, I think I can make a record now.’
JazzReview: Did you have any significant musical influences outside of jazz particular musicians, or anything you can see that has influenced your thinking about music?
David Weiss: Well I went to art school for photography and I used to really like film. Either I’m getting crankier, or it’s really true but jazz isn’t the only art form that has suffered in the last 20 or 30 years. I used to go to movies all the time. Now I think I’ve been to a movie twice this year. But you really don’t know what influences you although sometimes you do. You can look back and hear something and say ‘Oh, that’s where that came from.’ I’ve read books about Jim Morrison, and film books, because [art] is about a process and you’re curious about the process. Film directors have the same issues as bandleaders do, so there are parallels.
But the weird thing about that is, as open-minded as all that sounds, when it comes to jazz, it’s like ‘Okay, [this is what I do].’ Pete La Roca, who I’ve done some work with lately, has influenced me on this. He came up playing Latin he played timbales but now he won’t do Latin or straight-eighth music. At some point he came to the realization that jazz is the most complex, one-man percussion thing there is. He said ‘Anything else is just cheapening it, taking away from it.’ This is a fight I have [too] a lot of the press perceives what I do as straight ahead and a lot of writers, right or wrong, are of the opinion that the only new music, the only new arena for creative music is still the avant-garde, or avant-garde influenced music. But avant-garde has been around for 40 years. If you are a creative musician, you find a voice within what you do, and that’s possible in any music. What Pete told me was, ‘Look, we all listened to classical music, avant-garde music, rock music, Latin music, whatever but we didn’t bring that music into jazz. We still play jazz. We checked out everything, but we play jazz. I’m a jazz musician.’ I thought wow, that’s exactly it, he’s exactly right about that. You listen to everything you can listen to, if you are of a curious nature and you should be, if you are a musician - but you do what you do. Just because I listen to some Eastern European music or some Hindu music, or whatever, I’m not going to start playing it. No one is at the ‘forefront of music’ just because of the style they choose to play.
JazzReview: There’s purity in that, right? You have a "vision" for what you want, what sound you like, and what you want to do.
David Weiss: Yeah. I mean I never thought about it it’s just how I always felt.
JazzReview: Anything new on the horizon that you are excited about?
David Weiss: Well the new NJCO CD will be out in the fall. Down the line we have some more Freddie Hubbard gigs. We’re going to France next week, and Italy in July and Germany in September.
JazzReview: What’s it like touring with Freddie Hubbard?
David Weiss: Freddie is certainly one of the greatest musicians who’s ever lived, but he’s also been playing in front of audiences for 40 years, so he’s a great equalizer. There’s some pretty heady stuff on his recent CD [New Colors recorded with the NJCO on Hip Bop Records], but there’s also Red Clay (a classic from Freddie’s album of the same name, released in 1970), and a simple blues. Freddie’s taught us all a lot about that. He can play some of the most complicated stuff in the world and he can play the simplest blues phrase in the world to grab [the audience] and give them something they can relate to. Jazz is tricky. Because we’re musicians, we try and make it as complex as possible but it goes back to the first thing we talked about: retain the melody!