Jim Beard: delight in the detail

    Pianist Jim Beard, who died 2 March, was a natural for the keyboard seat in Steely Dan, as exemplified by his own richly appointed solo work

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    Jim Beard (left) and guitarist Jon Herington

    Jim Beard was the perfect fit for Steely Dan’s unique, precision-tooled jazz-rock but in his solo records, working the crowded field that is post-60s electric-jazz, he had managed to find his own singular sound. In this previously unpublished 2013 interview he talks about the inspirations for the quirky, somewhat surreal fusion he produced in the 1990s, of his time with John McLaughlin and Wayne Shorter and of his early years and education.


    How did you get to be with Steely Dan and how long have you been with them?

    I’ve been with them for five years. Although I’m not 100% sure, I think the work that I did on Walter’s solo CD sort of got me into the band. I guess we worked on that around early 2007. They were doing a tour in early 2008 and their keyboardist at that time couldn’t make about a week of concerts and so they called me to come and fill in. A couple of months later I was contacted by Donald Fagen asking if I would be available for their world tour in 2009 and I’ve been there ever since.

    As a fan of Steely Dan and of those records you did for the German labels ESC, Escapade and Lipstick I’m struck by the similarities – the density of the harmonic ideas, the at times surreal mood and the rhythmic pocket. The two types of music – yours and theirs – seem to be quite well matched.

    Yes, I would definitely agree with that. I almost feel like my musical life has come full circle because I was a huge fan of Steely Dan in my musical formative years. And also not just the harmonic formulas and aspects but also just the great attention to detail and arrangement. You know, I’m a huge fan of that and all their records. You can just tell that that was high up on their agenda, the detail and the craftsmanship.

    Yes, those records you did – Lost At The Carnival (1995), Truly (1997) and Ad·vo·cate (1999) – are full of detail, successfully done.

    Thank you. I had a great time making those records and I feel like I channelled a lot of my creative energies into the studio, and actually, making CDs seems to be a better outlet for me than taking a band on the road in a van.

    That’s an interesting point – it goes back to the fact Steely Dan didn’t want to tour in the early days because they didn’t think they could reproduce the studio precision. Now it seems they can. Perhaps higher playing standards and technology allow. Before leaving Steely Dan, how much of the stuff is written out for you? How much did you have to just get the records and work it out for yourself?

    Well, when I got the call they sent me a bunch of charts. Those charts had been made by various people over the years, some by Jon Herington who was a musical director for a while, some by Michael Leonhart, who was the leader of the horn section, and some by other people. The charts weren’t always correct and I would make notes and bring these things up in rehearsal.

    Right now, in the two weeks of rehearsal prior to this tour we’ve covered 55 songs. But it was an odd feeling. When I would start running a song I would say to myself “Wow, this is a really great song” and I’d run Black Cow and I’d say “Wow, this is really a great song” and I’d run Green Earrings and I’d say “Wow, this is really a great song.” There’s not many artists’ songbooks where just about every single one seems to be a winner.

    That’s largely true I think. I agree with you absolutely. I don’t think there’s anything they ever did that you could say was a weak song.

    Let’s back go back a bit, before those German albums. What came right before those? Did you play with Wayne Shorter for a while?

    I was in different versions of bands with him over a 14-year period. I was on an album called Phantom Navigator. And then Wayne was on my debut solo CD Song Of The Sun [CTI, 1991]

    So there’s a link to Weather Report, which we also hear in your writing?

    I was a very big Weather Report fan in my college years. I guess my first gig or connection was when I had just moved to New York in 1985 and I had what was the hot technological item of the time, a four-track cassette recorder. I used to just enjoy demoing songs and in those days to have four tracks, that just seemed like anything was possible. So I would write these songs and demo them and try my hand at the arranging thing.

    I had gotten to meet up with Bill Evans the saxophonist and at the time I was also doing jam sessions. That was when I first met Mike Stern, at that little 55 Bar on Christopher St. Bill was getting ready to fly to Milan to record an album with John McLaughlin and he heard this song that I wrote and he suggested that I make him a copy and then he says “Let me take it with me, I’ll play it for John, I think he would like it.” I was thinking to myself “Yeah, sure, right.”

    The 1980s: ‘It seemed like a very vital time in music’

    They had recorded what they thought was an entire album’s worth of material and then John decided that it wasn’t enough material and he says “You know, we need another song on this record” and that’s when Bill steps up and says “Hey, I’ve got this song that this friend of mine wrote” and he played it for John and John immediately said “OK, we’re going to record that song tomorrow.” It was the opening cut on the album too, a song called The Wait. And so when the keyboard position opened up in Mahavishnu Orchestra I got the call to do it. And then Wayne Shorter heard me play it with Mahavishnu at the North Sea Jazz Festival and when the keyboard position opened up with Wayne he gave me a call for that. So it was kind of like, I guess, a snowball. It was a great time too. It seemed like a very vital time in music.

    So you were in New York in 1985. Where had you been before that? We’re sort of going backwards through your life here, I think.

    Well, I went to the University of Indiana, Bloomington.

    That’s a university with a lot of jazz connections – David Baker and stuff?

    David Baker, yeah. I just went to his 80th birthday celebration about a year and a half ago. Yeah, it was a great time at Bloomington during those years. We had a bar band which Jon Herington was in, who’s also now in Steely Dan; Bob Hurst was the bass player, Chris Botti was in the horn section and Kenny Aronoff was the drummer.

    I didn’t go straight from university to NY. I took a year to work on a cruise ship to save up money to move to NY. I didn’t really save any money because I think I had too much fun. Over the course of the year I think I managed to save a total of $600.

    I wonder what you got from David Baker at Indiana, if anything.

    Oh yeah, he taught me. He taught kind of across the board. He taught improvisation classes, he taught history classes, he taught ensembles. I mostly had him for ensemble and history classes. I did take some arranging with another guy who taught arranging; his name was Dominic Spera.

    Do you think either of these people had any influence on your mature writing? Or was that for the fundamentals of the job and then you later developed your own thing?

    Well, my university experience was very valuable to me and I think it was mostly valuable to me in just growing as a musician overall. Also, I was very obsessed when I was a late teenager just with technique, with mastering the classical influence. I had a point where I thought “I don’t want the piano to play me, I want to play the piano” and I got into a strong mode where I just wanted to master the instrument.

    Then during university a shift happened where just music became more important, music overall not just the act of playing a piano. So in other words your ears opening up and taking things in.

    Of Herb Alpert: ‘Even though that’s generally regarded as corny music, it’s extremely well-arranged corny music’

    But also, as the years ticked by, all the influences that I had heard as a child started bubbling to the top. I went through a phase where I told myself “Oh, I’m a practising jazz artist and I take this very seriously and all good music stopped after 1968.” I kind of forced myself into that routine and then later you realise that’s not true and you realise how much you loved Stevie Wonder records, you loved Elton John records, the Motown sound and the Philly sound. I even just remembered listening to weird records like Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass’s Whipped Cream & Other Delights when I was four years old and realising that even though that’s generally regarded as corny music, it’s extremely well-arranged corny music.

    So I think all these things started sort of bubbling and the gases were starting to mix at the top. There was a weird record like Herbie Hancock’s Sunlight mixing with other records that I love of his, like one of my favourites of his of all time, The Prisoner, and Speak Like A Child,  where there’s like such cool arranging going on. It’s all acoustic instruments but I think I turned to the synths because I didn’t have a travelling band with me 24/7.

    Now you mention Alpert and Hancock, I wonder if those are the quirky things that fed into those German albums. There’s a kind of nostalgia in those for pop of the 60s and even earlier.

    Exactly.

    You have a tune called Holiday For Pete And Gladys, with a kind of tacky 60s-type beach lounge mood with vibraphone. Was your intention to be somewhat was comical with that stuff?

    Yeah. I do like music that’s evocative. Music that makes you sort of imagine something. And for me it’s alright for humour to be one of those things. Some artists say “Oh, I’m a serious artist and bla bla bla” but humans are capable of quite a wide spectrum of emotions and there’s nostalgia, there’s just discovery, there’s feeling alone, there’s feeling like you’re in a crowd, there’s all kind of things to draw from, and a lot of times when I would write and create a piece something that would happen early on in the process is I get this image in my head of a character that’s being formed and what kind of character is this, is he tall or short, what kind of clothes is he wearing, does he have a funny walk and is he a serious character, is this character lonely and whatever, and after a certain point the song sort of takes over for me and the song will tell me how to finish itself.

    The jazz revival: ‘They were great records but there was a big push in the jazz business world and the print and media to push this regenerated sort of traditional jazz’

    When I want to sit down to work on something I just kind of let myself indulge in this fantasy world. I’m working by myself, but I’m imagining that if I could have a cool rhythm section who would these fictional rhythm section players be and what would they play? I think during the 90s a part of my inspiration might have been that there was a big resurgence of like, Blue Note records, and they used to call them the young lions and all these records were being made. They were great records but there was a big push in the jazz business world and the print and media to push this regenerated sort of traditional jazz.

    The Wynton Marsalis effect?

    Yes, sort of like that and this was maybe like my kneejerk reaction to that. Sure, I could write some songs and I could get a good rhythm section and the drummer could go ding ding a ding ding a ding but at the time that just seemed predictable and boring to me. I was trying to avoid predictable and boring.

    That’s interesting. And it sounds that way, too. I’m glad you did it. I have no problem with fusion or whatever people want to call it and for me those records in that particular genre, if you allow them to be put in that genre, were some of the best ones made in the 90s and the early 2000s.

    Ah that’s great. Thank you. Actually, John McLaughlin once said all music is fusion music, what music isn’t fusion music? All music is the result of the combination of a couple of styles that preceded it. I just refer to it as the F-word.

    That’s right. It can’t be used anymore. I don’t know what you call that music anymore. You don’t want to call it jazz-rock either, really.

    That’s actually kind of funny because I think the definition of fusion when the term was coined was the best aspects of jazz combined with the best aspects of rock but I think it got its bad name because many artists combined the worst aspects of jazz with the worst aspects of rock.

    Stepping further back, the first thing you played, I suppose, was piano?

    Oh yes. I started with piano when I was six years old. I had a great teacher, Marianne Ritz was her name, and my parents didn’t have to tell me to practise, I enjoyed it all the time and she got me into the classical competition circuit. I won a few of those things and gave my first solo piano recital at the age of 14, a pretty demanding classical repertoire.

    But even before I started piano lessons I had a very strong interest in music from as far back as I can remember, from wanting a tuba for Christmas when I was four years old and listening to my father’s homemade stereo with my head right in front of the speaker. I used to fantasise playing all the instruments.

    Were the family musical? Did they play?

    There is a lot of love for music in my family. Both of my siblings had taken music lessons. My brother had wanted to major in music in university but things were a bit conservative; my father had persuaded him not to do that. I’m seven years younger than my next older sibling. I think when it was my turn they said “Well, let’s let him do what he wants.”

    Yeah, I think often there’s big expectations of the older sibling and the younger ones are allowed to get on with it. So you did the classical repertoire. Was there any particular kind of composer or style that you liked more than any other?

    Well, I sort of relied on the material my piano teacher gave to me to work on. I do remember a lot of Chopin, who was such a great composer, especially for piano. Beautiful, and obviously he took a lot of time and great care to get all the notes correct, the ones that he wanted. I also can hear how so much other music came out of him. There’s some etudes where it sounds like it’s the left-hand ragtime style and in one of the scherzos there’s a passage in E major that sounds like Piano Man by Billy Joel. You can just hear all these things… only he did it first.

    That’s an interesting point. I’ve noticed that myself. I’m a big fan of Chopin and you do hear that, you hear almost every pop tune you’ve ever heard somewhere in there. 

    You’ve got this new record [Show Of Hands, 2013]  and you’re back on the piano, so it’s a sort of full circle.

    It is, yes, and it just felt like something that would be different for me to do but also a lot of fans and a lot of my colleagues in the business have for years now been bugging me to do this. Like, a couple of years ago on the Steely Dan tour I used to get this extended solo-piano introduction and I would just sort of free associate and make references to aspects of the song and it used to go over really quite well. Finally, I had some time open up in 2013 and I just decided to go for it.

    What preparation did you do? How much did you plan what you were going to play?

    I always like to play piano in my off-time. I still have all my classical books and I still enjoy going back to some of the old repertoire. So I just started mentally making notes. I’d play something and think that would sound nice on a piano CD and I’d remember that and then when I started actually making solid plans to record it I wrote out some lists of what would be good. 

    Some of them I did approach with more of a classical mentality, if you will, and some of them I approached with a more typical jazz mentality like The Gentleman And His Cane which Michael Brecker had recorded. I’ve always wanted to re-record that.

    The Haiku tunes are all 100% improvised. I just would take these moments and I’d clear my head and I’d just try to play something and hope that it works out. It turns into something musical.

    You’ve got a nice outside harmonic flavour going on in Argentine. Do you know what it is – a particular thing? Lydian thing or …? Something overlaid on the basic modal situation, anyway.

    Right, I think I just got the ostinato going in my left hand I just wanted to feel like you know I opened a door and went outside it and took a walk with no real itinerary in mind. Just start out walking through the woods and see where the paths lead.

    Some parallel universe you enter there, harmonically speaking anyway. And To Anachrion In Heaven. This is Stars & Stripes isn’t it?

    Yes it is. Before it was Stars & Stripes, before it was the US national anthem, it was a song called To Anachrion In Heaven.

    Oh, I didn’t know that.

    To Anachrion In Heaven: ‘Usually when you hear that song it’s in a sports stadium and it’s always very macho, beating your chest and all this stuff. So I just wanted to approach it differently’

    Yes. It was actually a drinking song. There was the Anachriotic Society in England. It was written in I believe 1780 or 1760 and it was a bunch of gentleman who would congregate. It was dedicated to a Greek poet, Anachrion, who lived in the sixth century Anachrion and he used to entertain his countrymen basically with songs of wine, women and song. There’s versions of that song with different words than the US national anthem, sung by these glee clubs in very spirited renditions. And whether it’s those renditions or the actual US national anthem, usually when you hear that song it’s in a sports stadium and it’s always very macho, beating your chest and all this stuff. So I just wanted to approach it differently.

    And on Old Folks I was reminded of Art Tatum or something there or Oscar Peterson. There’s a lot of stuff going on there which is very florid in the right hand I think.

    Yeah, that song was sort of tipping my hat to the sort of history of solo jazz piano playing.

    These pieces are quite short. If Keith Jarrett were doing that record they wouldn’t be that short would they?

    Two forces always seem to be at work in my mind whether it’s playing the piano or writing or arranging or that kind of thing and it’s the balance between the scripted and the unscripted or the written and the improvised or the structured versus the unstructured. A lot of artists feel like they need to reside just in one camp.For me they’re both great and they both can sort of play off of each other. So I guess on the record it’s sort of a solo piano manifestation of those elements working against each other. There are pieces which are sort of structured and concise and I say to myself that’s good, that’s enough, it doesn’t need to go on, that’s plenty, that’s fine. And there’s other times when I feel OK this can just run on itself and that’s OK too.

    Do you have any particular favourites among jazz pianists?

    Well, I certainly have listened to them all. Young jazz pianists, many of them go through their Oscar Peterson phase and McCoy Tyner phase. I most certainly had a Herbie Hancock phase. He just became one of my favourites because on some of those 60s records you can just hear how much he loves Ravel. But a very important pianist for me was George Shearing because I actually got to study with him for a while. He made a fantastic solo piano CD called My Ship which is just an incredible record. You can really hear his arranging brain taking over in a lot of that.

    In the press release for Show Of Hands you refer to standards and so many jazz artists twisting and distorting standards. What are you thinking of exactly when you say that?

    I’ve had the experience when somebody gives me a CD to check out, I’m listening to a song and I’m saying well this is interesting and he’s playing pretty well and what a strange song and I look at the credits and I see that it says All The Things You Are and I’m like, what’s he doing? It doesn’t sound like that song.

    I guess I like clarity. And I’m a fan of great songwriting. Sometimes I hear people do versions of songs where they distort it so much, they do so many chord substitutions and mess with the time and throw in odd metres and dissonant voicings and I say “If you’re going to do all that why not just write a new song and put your name on it?”

    That’s great. It’s good to speak to you and to speak to someone who has those kind of feelings for the music.

    Well, thank you, Mark.

    Thank you for all your music. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve ever heard from you.

    I really appreciate that. That means a lot to me.