TWENTY-FIVE YEARS INTO HIS COLLABORATION with pianist Keith Jarrett and drummer Jack DeJohnette— digging deep into the American Songbook and finding dazzling musical insights in pop chestnuts and jazz standards— Gary Peacock still isn’t so sure the gig is permanent. “There are no guarantees in that group,” Peacock says from his home in Claryville, New York. “Every time we go to play, it feels like the first and last time. We make it so that we can be totally present with the music.”
To be sure, the so-called Standards Trio—a critical and commercial success—is likely to go on. The group’s prominence is due in no small measure to Peacock’s penchant for following his muse. His open-mindedness led the Idaho-born musician to drop piano and drums at 21, in 1956, and migrate to bass. Within the year, he had left Army life in Europe and moved to Los Angeles, where he quickly found work with the likes of saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Art Pepper, pianist Paul Bley, and guitarist Barney Kessel.
Peacock’s long and fabled career has encompassed work in mainstream jazz and free jazz, stints with Miles Davis in 1964 and 1965, a self-imposed hiatus from music in the late ’60s, and a string of solo albums. Most recently, he has applied his highly creative soloing, steady walking, and gifts as a composer to trio and duo recordings with pianist Marc Copland.
You live in a rural area. What effect does that have on your playing and your composing?
It’s very, very supportive. The mind quiets down just because the atmosphere is quiet—I can sustain concentration. If I need excitement, I can always go into the city.
Do you play bass every day?
Yes, every day. I have a very strict routine. I get up, at 5 or 6am, have tea, then sit and do Zazen [meditation]. I have yogurt and coffee, and then play the bass for an hour-and-a-half or two hours. The morning is very patterned. After that, I do whatever business I have to take care of, answering email or making calls.
Are there any particular exercises that you play?
I don’t really work out of a book. What I’ve been doing for years is basically trusting my ears and listening to myself. It may be arpeggios, playing tenths, or breathing. I spend a lot of time just improvising.
You’ve talked about approaching each playing experience as if you were a beginner. What do you mean by that?
You’re always at the beginning. If you’ve come close to death a few times—or what you thought was death—you’ve realized there’s no guarantee that you’re going to be alive in the next instant. My approach to playing is based on the realization that there are no guarantees. It’s helped me to focus in a profound way, and to be truly present.
Did you have that feeling the first time you played with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette, on your 1977 album Tales of Another?
Yes. On that recording, I had written some free pieces. One of the free pieces was “Major Major,” which had just a head—no chord changes. Keith asked, “What do you want to do when you finish the melody?” I said, “I’ll just do whatever comes next.” Keith said, “Oh, okay.” It was where that “okay” was coming from that made a difference. He knew what I was talking about. That was a special moment for me, because it was very clear that we were on the same page. When we began playing, it was clear that he absolutely understood.
Do you feel like you have a different connection with those guys than you have had with other musicians?
My experience with Keith and Jack is unique. The experience I had with Paul Motian and Bill Evans is unique. The experience I had with Paul Motian and Paul Bley is unique. Not the same, and not different. It’s kind of like an acre of very fertile ground—in that ground there are flowers of all kinds, each with a different life span. Though they’re all individual, they come from the same undeniable source, the same ground. That’s as close as I can get to an analogy of the experiences I’ve had with the different bands I’ve worked with.
Is “Insight” a project that you had wanted to do for a while?
We’ve only done a couple of duo performances. It’s something I like to do because of the bare-ass nakedness of it. No other support is going on except for what’s going on with us. I’ve always felt comfortable in duo settings, whether with piano or with a guitarist like Ralph Towner. There are nuances that I would naturally hear that I would play, whereas with drums I probably wouldn’t. It’s something that we both enjoyed and looked forward to doing.
When you first began playing bass, you made very rapid progress.
I was woodshedding and jamming with people, playing blues in all 12 keys. I had a Simandl method book … boring as hell. I went through that pizzicato, and realized very quickly that what I was really after I wasn’t going to get out of a book. I’d been playing a little less than a year and Bud Shank and Bob Cooper came over for a European tour and they were looking for a bass player and I got the gig. And then I went back to Los Angeles and was there for about five years, working with just about everybody in LA. I realized one morning that I had to go to New York.
Having had a background playing drums and piano, did you come at the bass with some advantages?
I think any bass player should sit down to a set of drums and play so they get a sense of it. And for sure, they should spend time at the piano. That’s for ear development, particularly for being able to intuit harmony. The keyboard, the acoustic piano, is the source for hearing any kind of tonal relationships, even if you’re getting into free jazz or stuff where you’re not playing tonal music. The lessons you learn transcend tonality. Years ago, just before I moved to New York, Scott LaFaro came into town, and we hung out at his place. He put on an Anton Webern record that was regarded as atonal. At the time I was into Béla Bartók— particularly his quartets, which I listened to daily. That, I could hear. In Scott’s case, he heard Webern. It was 15 years before I started listening to Webern again. When I did I said, “Whoa, I hear what’s happening.” There are short little melodic fragments— 12-tone rows. I suddenly realized how deeply Webern understood tonality.
Was Scott Lafaro one of the players who had a major impact on your jazz conception?
Yes, and Paul Chambers, and Ray Brown—there wasn’t anybody that I wasn’t listening to. When I first I got to L.A. I had two books that I made of my own transcriptions. One had transcriptions of Ray Brown’s walking lines, and one was of Red Mitchell solos. I used those books as etudes. I didn’t have any fear at all that I’d become a clone. Doing the transcriptions was wonderful ear development. You really need the willingness to put in the time and the energy.
Who else did you learn from?
Miles Davis, just in terms of phrasing and intuition and sound. Stan Getz. Pianists from Horace Silver to Wynton Kelly. Red Garland, later Bill Evans, and Dave Brubeck. Russ Freeman. Chet Baker.
You’ve said that Miles taught you a lot about the art of listening. How so?
He didn’t miss one thing. He heard everything that was happening all the time. I could hear that he was hearing it. There was that kind of focus, attention, and commitment to what’s happening. It was a great experience, and a great lesson. Miles taught without teaching.
Were there other leaders along the way who had a big impact on your playing?
In terms of listening, that certainly happens with Keith and Jack, and it also is an integral aspect of what Mark and I play.
Do you have plans for more solo recordings?
I’m looking at a solo recording project for the early part of next year.
Yes. It’s something I’ve been threatening to do for years. I think I’m starting to feel ready for it.
Playing completely unaccompanied presents its own challenges and joys.
Oh, yeah. It’s completely different than anything I’ve ever done, in a sense. My whole approach to music and jazz in general was coming more from the standpoint of being a support player. When I got in a band, I wanted to make sure that everyone sounded the best they’ve ever sounded in their life. That was my goal—to really light the fire. That’s how I felt about Ray Brown— how could somebody play with Ray Brown and not sound great? For me to go from that to being a soloist, unaccompanied, is really scary. But I think I’m finally turning that corner.
Bass e-size Arnold Schnitzer flatback. Until 2008, Peacock favored his British-made Samuel Allen, a u-size bass made in 1875. “It sounds like an organ; It was always problematic in large halls,” says Gary. “I was looking for a smaller instrument, with the assumption that a flatback would be less muddy. The Schnitzer has ash for the back and for the ribs, but the deck is maple. It’s clear as a bell, and projects well.”
Strings Thomastik Spirocore, orchestra gauge
Pickup Fishman Full Circle
Bow German style bow
made by G. Werner
Rig SWR SM-400 head, SWR Goliath 4x10 cab
Gary Peacock/Marc Copland, Insight [Pirouet, 2009]; Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJohnette, Yesterdays [ECM, 2009], My Foolish Heart: Live at Montreux [ECM, 2007], Setting Standards: New York Sessions [ECM, 2007]; Toninho Horta, To Jobim With Love [Resonance, 2008]; Bill Carrothers, Home Row [Pirouet, 2008]; Marc Copland/Gary Peacock/Paul Motian, New York Trio Recordings, Vol. 2: Voices [Pirouet, 2007]; Marc Copland/Gary Peacock/ Bill Stewart, New York Trio Recordings, Vol. 1: Modinha [Pirouet, 2006]