Interview with Matt Cooper: For me, soul is a lot about the blues, without which jazz couldn’t exist … Video

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Jazz interview with jazz keyboardist Matt Cooper. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Matt Cooper: – I grew up in Eugene, Oregon, a university town with a very active jazz scene at the time.

My dad was a good amateur violinist who played in a string quartet. My high school jazz directors were excellent, and our jazz band and choirs competed throughout the Northwest. I first got interested in jazz through the “back door” via pop/rock groups like Steely Dan, Frank Zappa, and Chicago.

JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the musical instrument? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the musical instrument?

MC: – My brother took piano lessons, and we discovered I had a good enough ear to play all his pieces before I could read music. I took lessons with one teacher, Wanda Eastwood, until entering university as a piano major.  There were free jazz workshops in Eugene by Scott Reeves and Sonny King (then-husband of singer Nancy King). I went to Jamey Aebersold and the Stan Kenton jazz clinics in California; at Aebersold, my high school mates and I ended up in a combo coached by Joe Henderson. Much later, in the 90s, I got a little time to hang out with Art Lande, who is one of the greatest pianists and teachers anywhere.

JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

MC: – I started out in high school emulating Thelonious Monk, learning many of his songs off the record, and eventually earning third prize at the Monk Competition (1988). Much later I listened and transcribed Duke Ellington’s piano works, leading to my doctoral thesis on Ellington’s piano style (’94) and eventually my book, Duke Ellington As Pianist (2013). My other influences include Bill Evans and a lot of classical music.

JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

MC: – As a university professor, I now practice mostly to keep up with my students and perform recitals–as well as gigs, often backing touring musicians–but as a student, I practiced Bach fugues to develop lines in both hands, and Bartok’s Mikrokosmos for rhythm and harmony. I also learned every Charlie Parker tune I could find in all 12 keys.

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?

MC: – I love the music of Ravel, and so much jazz harmony flows from that, as for example in Herbie Hancock’s music. In general I like to use chord extensions whenever possible, such as thirteenths, and suspended chords; McCoy Tyner’s use of suspensions and fourths is always inspirational.

JBN.S: – What do you love most about your new album Two for the Road-how it was formed and what you are working on today.

MC: – The album is a tribute to the journey in life with my wife, the vocalist Sharon Porter.  It’s about life’s ups and downs, and the first track (James Taylor’s “Secret o’ Life”) says it all. I like the balance of standards, Ellington tunes, and reinterpreted pop material; bassist Scott Steed, who I’d never met before the session, was just great to work with.

Recently I’ve been backing Detroit vocalist Kathy Kosins and New York saxophonist Rob Scheps when they are in this region. I also play with a New Orleans funk band, Depot Street Syncopators, which is a lot of fun, and Rob and I will be doing several McCoy Tyner tribute concerts this fall.

JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

MC: – For me, soul is a lot about the blues, without which jazz couldn’t exist, but there is also another sense of “soul” in non-blues-derived music such as East European or certain classical music. The great Midwest jazz drummer John Von Ohlen said it best: “jazz combines the intellect of classical music with the guts of rock and roll.”

JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

MC: – The saxophonist Jim Pepper sat in with my trio years ago in Portland, and told me my solos sounded like a bounding gazelle. When playing with a combo in Eugene, Lester Bowie (Art Ensemble of Chicago) walked in to the club, stayed the whole night, and dug our group. After a gig with Eddie Harris in Dayton Ohio, he hung out and graced me with his advice; he was a wonderful musician and mentor who never stopped growing. At the time, he was practicing Prokofiev violin sonatas on the saxophone!

JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

MC: – I’ve found that younger students still enjoy the older standards and realize their value. The melodies are enduring, and the harmonic progressions are still a challenge. There is some more recent popular music that is worth improvising over, too; Stevie Wonder’s tunes are endlessly amazing. Younger people will continue to mine the most recent pop music for its value as well.

JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

MC: – Spirit permeates everything, not only within us but everywhere around us—animals, plants, even rocks. The spirit is not so much “in” us, as we are “in” spirit. To be “in spirit” is to be inspired.

JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

MC: – Recording artists should be paid decently for their music, and consumers should not expect to get all their music online for free! Performers should be able to earn revenue from recordings, and should not have to suffer through grinding tours well into their golden years.

On the other hand, overly-vigilant organizations such as ASCAP should stop suppressing live music at smaller venues, as these venues cannot afford ASCAP fees—which do not “trickle down” to the little guy.

JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

MC: – Lots of Latin music, as well as the newer things from Herbie and Wayne. I  don’t listen to a lot of things that “swing” in the traditional sense, but periodically I keep going back to Duke. His body of work is unparalleled.

JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

MC: – Harlem in the 1920s and 30s would have been a fascinating musical melting pot, with all the stride pianists competing against each other and bands like Ellington’s playing constantly. So would Paris in the early 20th century, with so many artists and composers like Satie and Stravinsky.

JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

MC: – What is the most common theme or salient point you have culled from all of the interviews you have conducted?

JBN.S: – Thank you for answers. When Barry Harris added beautiful questions … example about soul …

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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