Reviews / JazzReview Interview: Danny Green

Artist Interview by: Chuck Vecoli

DannyGreen-438Jazz is the ideal model of genetic evolution. New individuals express similar traits to their ancestors. Why shouldn’t they? After all they are born of the same species, same DNA, same gene pool, but when the traits are blended within every new generation, something truly unique is expressed. There are similarities, likenesses in expression, a familiarity in the voice, a feature that is reminiscent of the previous generation and upon further investigation, it is only the slightest resemblance. Yet, the individual stands there, part of a family, a descendant, an individual of the family, recognizable as one yet standing alone.

Danny Green is proof that the laws of genetics are at work in jazz—the previous generations expressing themselves in the younger, newer generations.

Green’s debut release With You in Mind demonstrates the expression of the vast gene pool that is jazz. Born of the union of classical music evolved into classical jazz with Brazilian jazz influences, Green’s work is the promise of a new and bright future for jazz.

My conversations with Danny touched on the elements of those influences, those biological events that expressed themselves in the compositions that fill out this, his first work With You In Mind. Dedicated to his new fiancée, the love of his life, it is only fitting that the love of his life be the recipient of the gift that is the love of his life.

It was not always that way, but it has been for a quite a while. Since that time he heard that first swing groove, that big band energy that caught him up in the thing that is jazz.

JAZZREVIEW: What was it that caught your attention, what attracted you to jazz?

DANNY GREEN: “Getting into jazz was a very gradual process for me. One of the first things that turned me onto jazz was the freedom in it…The idea of creating music in the moment was such a new thing for me when I first heard jazz. I started with classical music when I was five and I got turned off by it around the age of 12, because I didn’t enjoy the music I was playing. Around that time, I went into this phase of only listening to Nirvana for about two years. I taught myself almost every one of their songs by ear. Eventually, I started feeling limited, so I began broadening what I was listening to. Ska was the next big thing for me, and that is where I first started hearing music with instrumental solos. This naturally led me into jazz, and I think my first exposure to jazz was with Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Little by little, I kept checking out more artists…especially Cuban and Brazilian music. Just as I learned to play Nirvana when that was what I listened to, I began experimenting with jazz and Latin music on the piano.”

JAZZREVIEW: Was there any individual that you credit with having an influence on you…a teacher or contemporary player the turned you on to the music that you were becoming interested in?

DANNY GREEN: “The first person that comes to mind is Kamau Kenyatta. I took private lessons from Kamau during my time at UCSD (2000-2004) and he was really great about exposing me to new music and also helping me dig into the music that I was already into. He got me thinking a lot about musical aesthetics and about going for an original approach to whatever I played.”

“Another big influence was a professor by the name of Jason Stanyek. I took three world music appreciation courses from him, which covered African music, Brazilian music, and the Blues. Aside from getting exposed to a ton of new music, his classes focused on a number of social and historical issues in connection to the music, which I found very interesting. One of my favorite memories of his Brazilian music class was the weekly Pagode (samba jam) he would hold in his office. I initially enrolled at UCSD to study Chemistry, but after taking the first of Stanyek’s courses, I immediately became a music major.”

Danny had been the beneficiary of that all important element of evolution, the extensive gene pool. It is among this fertile source of influences that Danny learned a new language to express himself, the language of the elders. One place where he had expanded his own language was while among the ranks of the students at the California Brazil Camps. These annual events featured the best of Latin jazz and provided Green a chance to explore the genre with the best of guides.

JAZZREVIEW: With these influences, you were pretty much headed in a direction, playing keyboards and doing jazz. Did you then pursue study on your own?

DANNY GREEN: “Prior to studying with Kamau, I was a self taught jazz musician. I knew a few things, but mostly through intuition. By that time I had forgotten how to read music I had no clue what chord symbols meant. A lot of my studies with Kamau were getting me up to speed on things such as chord symbols, scales, modes, and from there, improvisation. At the same time, I started playing in a jazz improv ensemble at UCSD which gave me some group experience. Aside from the lessons and ensembles, I think I’ve always been doing some amount of studying on my own, which has been a necessary step in the pursuit of my own sound and style.”

JAZZREVIEW: Beside the ensemble playing, what other kind of performance experiences were you able to get?

DANNY GREEN: “The first group that I regularly played with was called Cal- Son, which was led by percussionist/vocalist Alex Galucho. We played mostly Afro-Cuban music every Friday for about two or three years at a restaurant called the Calypso Café, and at some pretty wild parties. We had some great times. My first attempts at arranging music were with this group, and it was a great platform for me to try out all kinds of ideas.

Eventually, Alex went on to produce a TV show called Adrenalina, sold it to Telemundo and moved to Costa Rica. So, I was left with the gig and the group turned into a piano trio. Around that time, I started branching out and playing with a bunch of
different musicians in the San Diego jazz scene.”

JAZZREVIEW: I hear the Chucho Valdez influences, I am a big Chucho fan, but who are some of your other influences?

DANNY GREEN: “Well Chucho was definitely a big influence when I was playing more of the Afro-Cuban jazz and salsa, but now I’m really into a lot of the Brazilian musicians like Chico Pinheiro, Jovino Santos-Neto, Edu Ribeiro and Fabio Torres to name a few. I’ve been going for the past several years to a music workshop called California Brazil Camp, and a lot of these guys are out there every year teaching and putting on some of the most amazing jam sessions I’ve ever seen.”

JAZZREVIEW: With the formal studies in place, the one on one influences and the exposure to ensemble playing, composing and arranging Green had developed the traits of a jazzman. What was to happen next was unavoidable. The music needed an outlet…a medium to express itself. A lifetime of absorbing was now to become a lifetime of expression, and the first experience would be a strong one.

JAZZREVIEW: So how long did it take you to compose these tunes?

Danny Green - With You In MindDANNY GREEN: “The compositions on With You In Mind span from November 2005 with “Off the Streets,” to March 2008 when I wrote “Para Chano.” I wasn’t necessarily composing them with the idea to putting them on an album, but when it came time to recording, I decided to do mostly originals so these pieces all ended up on the album.

We really took our time recording the pieces, making sure that we got the takes that we wanted to get. Most of the pieces had a pretty definite form before we recorded them, but some of them took a little more shape and we came up with some great ideas during the sessions. We only aimed to do one song per session so it ended up taking a few months before we had it all recorded.”

JAZZREVIEW: Did you produce the album?

DANNY GREEN: “I co-produced the album with Allan Phillips who plays percussion on the album. He did the mixing and mastering on the album, and I think that turned out great.”

JAZZREVIEW: When did you form the trio you are with now?

DANNY GREEN: “I’ve been playing with Dylan (Dylan Savage, drums) since about 2003, and Justin (Justin Grinnell, Bass) joined the group about two years ago. I did one or two gigs with Tripp (Tripp Sprague, Soprano Sax) before recording the CD and I knew that we had to get him in on some tracks…same with Allan (Allan Phillips, Percussion). Tripp is now playing regularly with us and I absolutely love the energy and sound he brings to the group.”

JAZZREVIEW: With respect to Dylan and Justin, while working on the CD, was it a collaborative effort to polish the music of your compositions or was it something where you had the vision for the output pretty clear in your mind and it was a matter of getting alignment from the players?

DANNY GREEN: “It was a little of both. I’m very specific when I write out my charts about what to play. So there is a lot that I have already decided on my own. There are quite a few times however that when it comes down to playing my compositions for the first time, some hits need to be adjusted, some sections need to move around, and some parts have to just go. During the recording sessions, there was plenty of discussion between us all about how we wanted to approach these pieces and how we could improve them. For instance, I knew on “Jellyfish” that I wanted to have a drum solo section, so Dylan came up with the rhythmic figures that we played behind his solo. That would be one example of the types of collaborations that occurred.”

JAZZREVIEW: So there was happy collaboration going on?

DANNY GREEN:”Definitely! Another tune that we talked a lot about before recording was the title cut “With You in Mind.” Dylan and Justin both gave a lot of input in how we shaped the performance of the piece. The result of that was playing very sparsely on the bridge, starting the first two bars solo piano…just trying to go for different textures.”

JAZZREVIEW: On the subject of different textures, I noticed your music changes moods, staying inside the theme, but changing moods within the context of the composition. You were pretty consistent in the use of that structure.

Is that something that you like to do, to give it almost a broader palette of what you are expressing? Each song had phases of it where you explored what I called the dark corners of the music….you went into each area and explored the moods. Is that something you do consciously or something that just comes across in the final piece?

DANNY GREEN: “I am definitely thinking a lot about those sorts of ideas when I am composing and arranging. I think one reason is because I now love classical music. I am very interested how the great composers handle their themes, how they develop them and what they do with them. I often times think of composing as a sort of puzzle work. I’ll come up with a main theme, and after that, it’s like putting the puzzle together. I know where the piece has to go, but I have to figure out how. To me, the various moods provide a balance that is needed in the music.”

“I do all of my composing at the piano, and I write out everything on paper as the ideas flow. Since I’m not gifted with the best handwriting, the next step is inputting the music into the computer notation software, and that is when I start thinking about form and where I want to place solos. I always like to use solos for a purpose, and not just to have solos to have solos. I think piano, sax, bass and drum solos all have their own specific energies, and I like to strategically place them into my compositions in order to shape the various curves of energy and mood.”

JAZZREVIEW: You’re using a broad palette of your influences to create those moods…it’s Latin with a complexity that goes beyond Latin and it’s classical jazz with a dimension that gets it outside of classical. With those diverse influences, how do you define yourself as an artist?

DANNY GREEN: “I was thinking about that the other day. I think first and foremost, I am a Jazz musician. In this regard, I like to think of jazz as an approach to music rather than a specific style. To me, the main ideas behind the jazz approach are being open to all possibilities, creating in the moment, interaction and expression. My musical influences come from Brazilian, Latin, jazz, and classical music, so I like to use the various styles within these genres as a palette to express myself. While I am not a Brazilian, Latino, or a 19th century composer, I think of my music as a blend of these influences with a jazz approach.”

JAZZREVIEW: Speaking of influences, you mentioned that you were now a big classical music fan. What got you back into that, and how is that expressed in your music?

DANNY GREEN: “At the time that I was going to UCSD, they didn’t have an official jazz program. In order to get my performance degree, I had to take classical piano lessons, as well as classical theory, and even a year of choir.

At first, I was kind of annoyed that I had to go through all of this, but little- by-little, I started realizing how great classical music is. My piano technique was pretty weak at the time, so I also thought that taking classical lessons would really benefit my playing. Brahms was the first composer that I really got into. I listened nonstop to his Piano Quartet in A, and even made a jazz arrangement out of the second movement. From there, I got into Chopin, Mozart, Debussy, Beethoven and a bunch of others. The next big phase for me was Rachmaninoff. I listened all the time to his piano concertos and eventually ended up learning his 2nd and 3rd concertos. For a while, I only liked classical music that involved piano, but eventually I started getting into symphonies, especially Mahler’s symphonies…next came opera. Currently Wagner is my [favorite] composer and hardly a day goes by that I don’t listen to at least some excerpts from Tannhauser, or play through the vocal score on piano.”

JAZZREVIEW: So how do you make the music your own? Do you use the music to express your emotions, or are you paying homage to the art? What drives you to the pieces that you have created?

DANNY GREEN: “Making music my own is always the challenge. To a large extent, I write and play music based on whatever type of music I am focused on at the time. Part of it is just trying to dig deeper into the styles, but the other part of it is that these styles resonate with me on an emotional level, and so I am able to use them as a means of expressing myself. My number one goal in composing is to make the music emotionally compelling.”

JAZZREVIEW: Emotionally compelling is a great way to describe the entire CD With You In Mind. From its love inspired title song “With You in Mind” to the classically inspired ballad “Lullaby for a Poet,” and the hot Brazilian compositions “Baião Pra Voce,” “Para Chano,” and “Gigi” that conjure up all the heat of a night in Rio, this CD has it all. These songs were composed with attention to every detail and executed with skill and balance by talented and respectful musicians.

Danny Green is what evolution in jazz is all about, expressing the traits of those that came before him, with a style and panache that is all his own…an individual who expresses what is inside of him.

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