On his second live trio album, A Celebration of Diz and Miles, jazz pianist Mike Longo pays tribute to two of the greatest jazz trumpet players of all time, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. Longo played extensively with Gillespie for a quarter-century, and jammed onstage with Davis during shared club dates in New York City (three-sets-a-night for nine-weeks) in 1969 and 1970.
Longo is backed by renowned jazz stalwarts Paul West on bass and Ray Mosca on drums. The most remarkable aspect of this new live album is that it is completely intuitive as well as being 99-percent improvisational (except for the basic melody statements). Since Longo has played many times with West and Mosca in many band settings over the past four decades, and since the material was well-known, the trio did not rehearse. “I just showed up with a list of tunes. Even the intros and endings are improvised,” Mike states. “We hadn’t even planned to do an album, but at the last minute my producer, Bob Magnuson, decided to record it.”
The concert appropriately took place at the John Birks Gillespie Auditorium at the Baha’i Center in New York City, and the album contains highlights from two completely different (TAKE OUT HYPHEN BETWEEN THE WORDS “completely” and “different”) sets performed June 26, 2012. This is free-wheelin’, deep-exploratory, impulsive, instinctual live jazz at its best, based in be-bop traditions, but always pushing into new territory. “Jazz audiences expect every concert, each set, to be something new, fresh and exciting, and my goal is to deliver that,” Longo states. “These tunes will never be played again exactly like they were that night.”
Longo, who in his early days studied privately with Oscar Peterson and played while still in high school with Cannonball Adderly, explains that the most challenging aspect of the concert was creating spontaneous piano-trio arrangements of tunes originally played by larger ensembles with one or more horns. “However, I have been doing this in concert and on my studio trio recordings for the past few decades, so I am very familiar with the difficulties involved in trying to capture the essence of a horn tune on piano. On some of these pieces I tried to get two or three lines going simultaneously representing several horn parts as well as the original keyboards, and then bring my own thing into it.”
A Celebration of Diz and Miles and many of Longo’s other recordings are on the Consolidated Artists Productions label (CAP) and are available online in the CD format at Jazzbeat.com and CDbaby.com, selected retail outlets, and also as digital downloads at sites such as iTunes, Rhapsody, eMusic, Amazon-downloads and many other internet locations.
Although Longo has performed with dozens upon dozens of distinguished jazz musicians during his career, he has a special place in his heart for Dizzy and Miles. Gillespie hired Mike as the pianist for the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet in 1966, a position Mike held through nine years of non-stop touring and recording, and for several years he also was the musical director for the band before striking out on his own. But even then, he worked frequently with Dizzy for another 16 years. “I was always learning from Dizzy. He had the greatest depth of understanding of rhythm of any musician I ever met.”
When Mike arrived in New York City as a young man, Miles was playing at Birdland with a band that included John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly, who got his former piano player into the gig. Backstage after meeting Miles, Longo asked Adderly what it was like working with Miles and Cannonball said, “He has a hell of a mind.” Later, while in Dizzy’s band, Longo met Miles many times. “Miles looked up to Dizzy as a mentor. They both had a lot of respect for each other.” In 1969 they were both playing with Quintets and were both booked into the Village Gate in New York to play three sets a night for six weeks. Every night, every set, Miles sat in with Dizzy’s band giving Longo the opportunity to play with both jazz legends on the same stage together. The following year the quintets were also booked together at the Club Baron in Harlem for three more weeks of stage sharing. During these stints, Miles paid Longo a high compliment when he said about the tight interaction between Dizzy and Mike, “Sounds like you cats got married.”
A Celebration of Diz and Miles kicks off with the Davis tune “All Blues” with Mike weaving the inner horn parts into the theme statment simultaneously. (“playing multi-part Bach fugues in college helped prepare me to do this”), followed by Gillespie’s “Con Alma” (“many times Dizzy and I played it as a duo in concert”). Other Dizzy tunes include “Ow” (“I first played this in high school years before I met Diz, and the tune taught me a flow of accentuation that I had never experienced before.”), “Here Tiz’” (“ever since I recorded it for my successful studio album, Float Like a Butterfly, I wanted to get a live take of it”), and Gillespie’s signature tune “A Night in Tunisia” (“I played it so many times with Dizzy that it was challenging to come up with a different approach here, so I embraced a sort of call-and-response with myself in the solo followed by an atonal cadenza”). The trio also tackles various Mile Davis numbers such as “Milestones” (“I always loved that record”), “Freddie Freeloader” (“a simple melody with a deep, deep groove like Picasso drawing a masterpiece with just a few lines”) and “So What” (“a great, great tune from Kind of Blue that was a turning point for Miles as he moved from diatonic to modal music”). Also included are two standards (“Summer Time” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is”) that Miles recorded (“those gave us the chance to do some deep exploration”).
“Playing with true jazzmen like Paul West and Ray Mosca is a real joy,” says Longo, “because they were willing to follow me wherever I headed, and I went in some strange directions. Paul can just about read my mind, and Ray is one of the few drummers who can contrapuntally answer me. I like drummers to play counter to what I am playing. Paul and I played together at the Playboy Club in the early days, and we played together with Dizzy for a couple of years too, and then with my trio after I left Diz. More recently he played on my Float Like a Butterfly CD. Ray played on my first live trio album a decade ago. Ray has been in many of my trios over the years.”
Among their many credits, West has played with Erroll Garner, Dinah Washington, Ray Charles and Billy Eckstine, and Mosca played with Oscar Peterson as well as Zoot Sims, Lena Horne, Billy Taylor Trio, Chet Baker and Benny Goodman.
Longo’s background includes earning his Bachelor of Music degree in classical piano at Western Kentucky University while also playing with the Hal McIntyre Orchestra, Hank Garland and the Salt City Six. Mike moved to New York and became a house pianist at the Metropole Cafe where he played with Coleman Hawkins, Henry Red Allen, George Wettling, Gene Krupa and other jazz notables. Eventually Longo also got to work with many great singers — Nancy Wilson, Gloria Lynn, Jimmy Witherspoon, Joe Williams, Jimmy Rushing, to name a few. Longo did an extended stay at Embers West with bassist Paul Chambers accompanying acts such as Frank Foster, Frank Wess, Clark Terry, Zoot Sims and Roy Eldridge. In addition, over the years Mike has performed on albums by Dizzy Gillespie, Astrud Gilberto, James Moody, Buddy Rich, Lee Konitiz and many others. Longo started his own recording career in the early Sixties and now has two-dozen solo albums to his credit (three of them with his big band, the New York State of the Art Jazz Ensemble). In addition, Longo is revered as a master jazz teacher (he has written numerous textbooks) and he also is releasing instructional DVDs in an eventual four-disc series titled The Rhythmic Nature of Jazz.
“It felt completely natural to me to do a piano-trio concert and a recording of music associated with Dizzy and Miles,” says Longo. “Everything Miles did was wonderful. If I had to pick one word to describe him, it would be ‘deep.’ Dizzy was always pushing me to go further and learn new things. Sometimes in concert in the middle of my solo he would give me ideas by coming over and whispering a rhythm in my ear or pounding a tambourine right next to my head. Other times I would finish my solo and Diz would refuse to come in, and even if I felt I was running out of ideas, he pushed me to dip deeper and deeper into that creative well and bring out what he knew I had in me.”