By Ron Wynn
Bruce Dudley is a well-known figure in both Nashville and national jazz circles. He’s a splendid improviser/soloist, fine arranger, busy session man, and an academician. His recent LPs have included a superb rendition of Monk pieces (“Mostly Monk,”), as well as others like “The Solo Sessions.” He’s often at the piano for area concerts and dates around town.
Dudley also has recently added bandleader to his list of duties. He heads a group whose ranks include tenor saxophonist Jesus Santandreu, bassist Jonathan Wires and drummer Derrek Phillips. They gave a resounding performance at the Nashville Jazz Workshop’s Jazz Cave Nov. 16. Dudley recent spent some time with “Jazz Conversations,” graciously answering our questions via e-mail.
Here are our questions and his responses:
(1) What do you enjoy most, composing, leading a group, doing session work, or playing solo?
“I most enjoy the thrill of playing in a group of like minded musicians, particularly playing music that I and they have composed and trying to bring something new and exciting to life. The solitary process of composition that preceded the rehearsal/performance is often mysterious and intriguing. That process can be challenging/perplexing as well as flowing and fun. As for solo piano performance, I enjoy the freedom that it allows – being able to stretch here or there on a whim. It places more weight on my shoulders in terms of pulling off the performance and I have to prepare a lot more for those performances and attend to ALL the details of the music. I really like to possibilities that solo piano offers in terms of tone, color, texture, dynamics, and so on. Session work…about the only session work I do are jazz sessions, recording projects of my own and with other artists, such as Evan Cobb, Sandra Dudley, and others. I do play in the pit of Broadway shows from time to time, which is another game altogether.”
(2) What got you initally interested in piano, and what made you choose jazz?
“I initially got into playing piano at age 6 or 7 after some movers delivered furniture to my parent’s house and asked my mother if we wanted an old beat up player piano they had in the truck. She said, “If you can get it down the cellar stairs, then we’ll take it.” I began pecking at it, putting aluminum foil in the between the strings and making all kinds of cool sounds. I then began begging my parents for piano lessons. So, I began lessons with a neighborhood teacher and learned (albeit slowly) to read music. She taught me a lot of chord theory and scales and “allowed” me to bring in sheet music of pop tunes that I heard on the radio, as long as I practiced the little Schubert pieces she gave me. That lasted seven years until I began studying with Biff Hannon. Biff was a graduate student at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where I grew up. He later went and the road with Maynard Ferguson’s big band and then became Nancy Wilson’s musical director for about five years. He has been Doc Severinsen’s pianist for the past 25 years. Anyway, he got me listening to Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and all the other post bop musicians.”
(3) What was the greatest challenge you faced doing the Monk LP?
“Mostly Monk” was a 2010 release for me. The greatest challenge for me with that project was getting the three different sessions (two different studios plus live at The Cave recordings) to sound compatible with one another. Sound engineer Brendan Harkin did a great job of mixing and mastering to make that all work well. The other challenge was writing for a string quartet in a way that would compliment the jazz quartet or trio. Thanks to the versatility and fantastic musicianship of David Davidson, David Angel, Chris Ferrell, and cellists Sari Reist, Matt Walker, and Matt Slocomb, I think we successfully pulled off my vision.”
(4) Who do you consider primary influences?
“My primary influences are many. In chronological order, separated by genre, they would be: Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Schuman, Brahms, Mahler, Stravinsky, Bartok, Shostakovich, Armstrong, Hines, Wilson, Powell, Monk, Parker, Young, Hawkins, Brown, Davis, Jamal, Evans, Coltrane, Coleman, Tyner, Hancock, Corea, Fischer, Jarrett, Beirach, and Hersch.”
(5) What are some of the challenges you face as an educator?
“As an educator, one of my biggest challenges is finding time to practice and compose on a daily basis. I really love teaching and coaching young people to play piano and learn the history of the instrument, as well as helping them discover their own “voice” on the instrument. However, the rigors of university teaching includes many other kinds of time consuming activities (class preparation, correcting, committee work, etc.) that often leave little time for personal development. It also is difficult to tour and gig as often as one might like. But it is very rewarding work and I am grateful for the opportunities to teach.”
(6) Do you feel young people today still consider jazz and/or want careers in the music?
“I think a lot of today’s youth are interested in jazz, once they are turned on to it. There is so much more to the history of jazz now than there was when I was that age in the 1970’s, with 40 years more music to check out. It is sometimes a challenge getting young people to really absorb the music from 1955 or 60 and earlier, but you know, it was difficult for me to get into the music that had been recorded prior to 1940 when I was their age. It wasn;t until I was well into my twenties that I seriously began to study the music of Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, Louis Armstrong, and Coleman Hawkins. And then it wasn’t until I was in my 50’s before I really studied and tried to play Jelly Roll Morton and early Duke Ellington. But I do see many opportunities of young people to be able to carve out a career by making music. The key is versatility and being creative, as well as being able to really play your instrument well.”
(7) How did you select the current members in your quartet?
“The current members of my quartet were chosen because of their unique talents, their sound, and because they are all great people to hang out with. I met Jesús during Saxophone Weekend at MTSU, an event Don Aliquo hosted in the fall of 2012. Jesús and I were asked to perform a duet about 20 minutes before the concert. We had just met, we played through a tune we both knew, Billy Strayhorn’s “Isfahan,” and instantly connected. It was like, “where have you been all my life?” Jonathan and I met some time ago when he first moved to Murfreesboro to work on his Masters degree. I have admired his energy, drive, sound and attitude since first playing with him. And then I started to have the opportunity to play his compositions and discovered that not only does he write interesting bass lines and melodies, but his rhythmic explorations are really something new, to me at least. And he just keep writing more and more music all the time! Derrek played with my double quartet, music from Mostly Monk, when we played at Vanderbilt in 2012. I have played in big bands and small groups with him over the past few years and I think he is one of the finest drummers and musicians I have ever played with. He is supremely sensitive to the music and people he plays with and has a wealth of experience that ranges from funk and pop to jazz and hip-hop. He has played with some heavies, such as Vijay Iyer, Charlie Hunter, Kurt Elling, DJ Logic, Michael Brecker, Lonnie Smith, Joshua Redman, and others.”
(8) Have you recorded with them or plan to do so in the near future?
“I am waiting to hear the recording we made of our recent performance at the Cave. If it is good and we all like what we played, then I may release it. I hope to record with this quartet this year and have it documented for people to hear and enjoy.”
(9) Do you have favorite players or groups in Nashville you enjoy working with and perforrming alongside?
“Besides this quartet, I really enjoy playing with other musicians in Nashville, including Don Aliquo, Rahsaan and Roland Barber, Evan Cobb, Denis Solee, Jamey Simmons, Jeff Coffin, Roy Agee (although we don’t seem to get to play enough together), Jim Ferguson, Jim White, and of course my favorite singer, Sandra Dudley. This town has many more great players and singers, and I enjoy having the opportunity to play with many of them whenever possible.”
(10) What other professional challenges are out there that you haven’t yet tackled, but would like to in the future?
“Some of the things I would like to do in the future are to continue playing with musicians who challenge me musically and to find performance opportunities that open up to a wider range of audiences. The new OZ performance space that will be opening in Nashville sounds very interesting and I’d like to present some new music and new ways there. I just have to figure out what it would be.”