The phrase “best kept secret” is always a little bit insulting to the musicians it’s used to describe, as though they go out of their way to remain unheard. That said, Rich Halley really is one of the best kept secrets in jazz—beloved by the folks who’ve heard his powerful trio and quartet recordings of the past decade-plus, totally unknown to the vast majority of listeners. Part of this is due to location: Halley lives in Portland, Oregon, and doesn’t come East for gigs. He’s also totally independent, releasing CDs on his own label (after several discs put out by his former drummer, Dave Storrs) and doing all his own publicity. That said, he’s far from a hermit—when I requested an interview, he agreed immediately.
Halley’s been recording since the 1980s; his entire discography is detailed on his website. He debuted as a leader on 1983’s Multnomah Rhythms, and on the follow-up, 1985’s Song of the Backlands, he first recorded with Storrs. Two main themes run through Halley’s entire catalog: nature (albums bear titles like The Blue Rims, Back From Beyond, Mountains and Plains and his latest release, Crossing the Passes) and long artistic relationships. He’s been collaborating with Storrs, bassist Clyde Reed, trombonist Michael Vlatkovich, and trumpeters Rob Blakeslee and Bobby Bradford for decades. Since at least 2008, his son, Carson Halley, has been his drummer of choice.
Halley’s got a big, muscular saxophone sound; he explores the horn’s full range, but frequently goes down into the guts of the thing, until the tenor sounds almost like a baritone. To me, his phrasing calls to mind players like Archie Shepp or even David S. Ware, but as you’ll see below, Halley himself acknowledges influences from much earlier.
His post-2000 discography includes three albums—2001’s Coyotes in the City, 2002’s Objects and 2005’s Mountains and Plains—with the trio of bassist Reed and drummer Storrs. On 2003’s The Blue Rims, they were joined by Bobby Bradford, who also appeared on 2010’s Live at the Penofin Jazz Festival (which Halley organizes and books). Some time after 2005, Storrs departed, replaced by Carson Halley. In 2011, Halley senior reunited with trombonist Vlatkovich, who’d appeared on his 1998 album Live at Beanbenders, and expanded his group to a quartet. They’ve made three albums so far: 2011’s Requiem for a Pit Viper, 2012’s Back From Beyond, and the new Crossing the Passes. All of Halley’s music swings, and while it can get quite free at times, there’s always a hint of melody and conceptual discipline; nobody’s ever going wild just for the sake of eruption. He’s a true original, working on his own sound out of sight of the press and the cannibalistic scenes of the big cities. But if you call yourself a jazz fan, you really ought to seek his music out.
Here’s a performance of “Smooth Curve of the Bow,” from Crossing the Passes:
I first became aware of your work with Coyotes in the City—tell me a little about your earlier work, and how you evolved to the sound you had on Coyotes.
Well, actually, I released a number of recordings before that. I released my first recording in 1983, a vinyl record called Multnomah Rhythms, and that was a kind of larger group—some of it had a quartet, and some of it had six or seven people on it. My first three were on vinyl, and they were for the Avocet label, which was based in Portland, run by a friend of mine. And for the most part, those were sextet-sized groups, and a little more writing-oriented kind of music. I continued with a band called the Lizard Brothers that was generally a sextet—it was either three horns, piano, bass and drums, or later it was four horns, bass and drums. And that band continued playing and recording pretty much through the ’90s. And then that first record, Coyotes in the City, was released in 2001; that was the first trio record that I released. So the prior ones are generally speaking larger groups, with more emphasis on writing, more horns, and so on.
Could any of those early albums be reissued on CD? Do you have the rights to them?
Yeah, I have the records, I suppose they could be. But there’s only three that are on vinyl, and everything else is on CD. If you go to my website, they’re all listed—you can see all the records with all the personnel, the dates and so on.
How did your trio with Clyde Reed and Dave Storrs come together?
Well, I had known Dave Storrs for years, since I was very young, really. So I’d played with him in a variety of groups. And I met Clyde probably 20 years ago up in Vancouver, BC—that’s where he lives. I think I went up there with a trumpet player named Rob Blakeslee who’s from Portland, Oregon. He’s not playing anymore, but I remember having a session with Rob and Vinny Golia and Clyde and I can’t remember the drummer’s name now. But anyhow, we met back in the mid ’90s or so, and I’d also played with them in a quartet that Rob Blakeslee had with Dave and Clyde, and then we just began working as a trio.
The first two albums by that group, Coyotes and Objects, featured a lot of long pieces—10, 12, even 15 minutes. What do you think made it necessary to work at that length? Were you feeling each other out, in some way?
That’s just kind of the way it fell out. I think we were just into exploring, and we would record—Dave Storrs had a studio in his garage, and those CDs were on Louie Records, which was Dave’s label. We would just turn on the machine and start playing, and that’s what came out. So there was no particular conscious reason, I think we were just into fairly extended blowing at times.
A trio can’t really be a guy and his rhythm section; it’s got to be a three-way interaction. How would you describe the relationship you, Clyde and Dave had?
Well, I would agree. It was very much a group process, and anybody in the band could move the music at any time to some different place. So it was pretty democratic in that sense, I guess. We were interested in three-way conversations, and developing those conversations, so that’s kinda how the music evolved. I mean, I did write the music, but the music was pretty open, so it provided a springboard for us to go off into our group improvisations and then, you know, the group took it from there.
So you write riffs or melodies that are then platforms for improvisation, rather than complete pieces.
Yeah, I’d say that’s true. I guess that’s always true, but what I’m saying is that in the trio, the writing aspect was not as emphasized. I didn’t write really complicated arrangements that required that we do this and do that. There was some of that—I guess I’m oversimplifying a little bit. There were some tunes that had quite a few sections and so on. But for the most part, the writing was a way to set the stage for improvisation. Now in my larger groups, the writing is more comprehensive. It sets the stage in a more structured way than it did within the trio. And the current quartet is a little more like the trio, although I would say the writing is more detailed and in some cases the compositions are a little more complex. So it’s a continuum. What I find is that the more people you have in a band, the more stuff you have to write out and specify. The fewer people, assuming that these people are good improvisers and everybody kinda sees eye to eye on how the process works, the less you need to specify in a small group than a larger group.
You work in the lower end of the tenor pretty often, to my ear; there are many times when you almost sound like you’re playing a baritone. How would you characterize your voice on the horn?
Well, I like all registers. I’ve had people write reviews of my stuff and say “He plays in the upper register all the time!” So I think I play the whole range of the instrument. I do like the lower end, but I like the upper end too—I kinda like the whole thing. I see myself as a tenor saxophone player as being influenced by the whole tradition. Probably my big early influences would have been Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Ornette [Coleman], [Albert] Ayler, those people, but slightly later on I got to appreciate Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster and the people out of those schools, like Gene Ammons—you know, there’s a whole large range of saxophonists.
That’s interesting, because I guess it’s a sign of my limited listening experience that the name that popped into my head was Archie Shepp, who’s obviously descended from those guys.
Right. Yeah, he was influenced by those people, as I was. I heard Archie Shepp early—I wouldn’t necessarily say he was a real influence on me. I liked some of his music, and so on, but I was much more influenced by Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster than I was by Archie Shepp, in terms of the way they played the instrument. I love the way those guys play. But that came a little bit later. In my early twenties, it was more like the guys I first mentioned. And I listened to Bird a lot, and the beboppers and the post-boppers, and then Rollins and Coltrane and so on. And then a little later, I began to go back and say, “Wow”…and Lester Young as well. I’d heard all the early Count Basie records with Lester Young on them when I was fairly young; I listened to that stuff a lot. I think when you’re young, you want to go to what the trend is, and maybe you get a little more mature and you begin to explore the whole of the tradition, and I feel like my playing in some way incorporates many different influences from many different periods.
You’ve played soprano on a couple of albums, but what has kept you from revisiting that horn since 2005?
I just felt like playing the tenor more, that’s my primary instrument. And the other thing is, I’m playing more in groups with another horn, so another horn provides some variety. If you’re just playing in a trio, playing a soprano or a flute or something provides some sonic variety. I would say that’s not as necessary when you’re playing in a band with another horn player. But basically what it comes down to is I felt like playing tenor, so that’s what I did.
How did you start working with Bobby Bradford? Were you a fan of his work with John Carter and in David Murray’s groups?
Okay, well, I knew of Bobby Bradford’s playing with those folks earlier, but I actually met Bobby… Vinny Golia was in my band, and he would play with Bobby, so I knew Bobby sort of was a friend of Vinny’s, and then Michael Vlatkovich had written some music for five horns, just five horns. So we did a couple of gigs of that music—it’s two trumpets, tenor, baritone, and trombone, and Bobby was one of the two trumpets. So I played with him on that, and that was back in the mid to later ’90s, I don’t remember the exact year. So that’s when I first met him, and I liked him, and I liked the way he played. So I’m the musical director for the Penofin Jazz Festival, which is kind of a small festival that occurs in Northern California, and I brought him to the Penofin Festival, and I got to know him, and we started playing together.
How do you feel your two voices mesh?
Well, Bobby’s a great player. His playing is extremely musical, so I feel like it’s quite easy to play with him. He listens to what’s going on really well. Bobby likes to play tunes as opposed to totally free—he likes to have at least a little something to kind of frame things, and I think a lot of my musical values are somewhat similar to his, and I feel like my music works well with his voice. He and I play together well as two horns, and I think we kind of fit, in terms of the way we think, musically. So it’s been great; it’s a lot of fun to play with Bobby.
Do you enjoy partnering up with another horn more than being the sole voice?
Well, they’re two different things, but the advantage of having another horn is it allows you to write arrangements with harmonies; you can do things that are much more complex in terms of writing if you have another horn. So I like that. And I have other groups, like I said, with four horns, and then you can do all sorts of stuff with writing. The more voices you have, the more you can do. So for me a lot of times it’s a balancing act. Quartets are a nice compromise ’cause they allow you to have harmony and counterpoint, but they’re also small enough to be really sensitive, so the improvising can be really loose, too. So that’s in some ways the best of both worlds.
The pieces on Mountains and Plains are mostly a lot shorter than the ones on your first two trio albums. Was that a conscious choice, and if so, why?
I think it just kind of happened. I think it was just the evolution of where we were going as a group at that point. Most of these things—I don’t generally plan stuff out with some kind of theoretical plan before I do ’em. I’m looking at that record right now…well, let’s see, there’s a 10-minute piece, and a couple of seven-minute numbers, but then the rest of ’em are shorter than that. The other thing we did on that record is that there are several totally freely improvised pieces—in other words, there’s nothing written, it’s all improvised on the spot. And those tend to be sometimes a little bit shorter. Although I’m just looking at this now, and not necessarily. Sometimes that’s true. So the answer is, it just came out that way.
You didn’t record anything at all between 2005 and 2010, and then you put out a live record—it wasn’t until 2011 that you went back into the studio. What happened in that interval?
Well, I was working a day job and my day job got really intense. It got to the point—I don’t want to get into all the details, but I was really hanging on. There was a lot of stuff going on at the company I was working for and I was sorta trying to hang on, and I had to work a lot of overtime and stuff. So while I continued playing, I didn’t do as much writing and I didn’t get into the studio. Actually, Live at the Penofin Festival was recorded in 2008, but it didn’t get released until 2010.
Your son Carson took over as drummer between Mountains and Plains and the live album. What caused that change?
Well, basically, Dave Storrs decided he wanted to do some different things, and I’d been playing with Carson in a bunch of other contexts. There were some duo gigs; there was a little club here in Portland that we played at pretty frequently, and he was kind of maturing. Also, Carson went to school down in Southern California, where Bobby Bradford was the director of the jazz group, so he actually was taught by Bobby. And he played in the band there, and learned quite a bit. So Carson had gotten sufficiently mature as a drummer, to the point where it just made sense to bring him into the band after Dave decided to do other things.
Carson seems like a more aggressive drummer than Dave—more interested in really driving the group than in more abstract rhythms. How would you contrast their playing styles, from the bandleader’s perspective?
Well, I think there’s some truth to what you say. Carson, I would say at times he can play pretty abstractly, but he definitely has that kind of personality. He was a baseball player, and a catcher. I don’t know how much you know about baseball, but catching’s pretty hard, gritty kind of work, and he brings that kind of affect to the music.
Since Michael Vlatkovich joined your group, you’ve made three albums in three years. Had you been piling up compositions, or is he really inspiring you, creatively, or both?
I’m just writing more music. I took early retirement from my day job a couple of years ago, so I have a whole lot of time now. That’s the main reason. We just recorded a new CD, and I wrote all the music for it in just over a month, which is the most I’ve ever done. I wrote eight compositions in just over a month, which for me is a lot. I think that’s part of it.
How would you say the quartet sits apart from the trio?
Well, you’ve got Carson—everything is a little different. Like I said, the way I see it is, the quartet blends some of the writing oriented aspects of some of my earlier, larger groups with the improvisational freedom of the trio. So it gives me a little of both things to work with. And the other thing I’d say is, I’ve played with all these folks in the current quartet for 15 years at least. So we all know each other really well, and I feel like the group—we’re playing quite a bit; I mean, we don’t play every week or anything, but we’re playing regularly, and that has led to the development of what I would consider a group approach to the music. And I find that pretty inspiring; I feel like we’re kind of exploring some really good places, and that makes me want to write more music and play more.
You have players you’ve been working with since the ’80s—what do you think are the merits of long-term artistic partnerships? Have you had satisfying one-off or short-term interactions with other players, or are you sort of serially monogamous in that way?
Well, yeah, I’ve played lots of gigs at different points in my career. But part of the deal is, I live in Portland, Oregon, and the number of people who are easily available to play the kind of music I’m interested in doing, that have the right set of skills and general approach that works with the kind of music I want to do is somewhat limited. I mean, I’m not in New York where there’s thousands of musicians. So some of it has to do with that, but some of it has to do with the fact that I like developing these kinds of relationships, and I feel that over time, you can get to certain things that you probably wouldn’t get to in a short period of time. So it’s probably a combination of both of those things.
Was there ever a time when you thought about heading for New York or Chicago?
Well, I lived in Chicago for a couple of years when I was between 18 and 20, and I actually got a lot of my early professional experience there, playing in rhythm and blues bands and Chicago blues bands. I was learning to play jazz, and was around a bunch of the people in the AACM and so on, but I didn’t play a lot of jazz gigs. So yeah, I was there then, but I kinda missed the West. I like the outdoors a lot, going out in the mountains and so on, so I came back west. At one point when I was young, I thought about moving to New York, but various things intervened and I didn’t. And at this point, I wouldn’t want to live in a place like that. It wouldn’t work for me. Visiting or as a place to play a couple of gigs, cool, but as a place to live, no.
You seem like you’re as interested in organizing as in playing, finding spaces and getting people together—can you talk about that?
I have done some of that. I’m not doing as much, but I do the Penofin Festival, which has been a fun thing, and we’ve had a lot of what I would consider the most outstanding players in the general musical universe that I inhabit play there over the years. It’s been going for 20 years now. I have done some other things like that, like in Portland, I was one of the people who created the Music Guild, which has been around for over 20 years. At the time, in the early ’90s, there weren’t very many venues to play anything but mainstream jazz. And so we kind of created this organization as a way to encourage people who were playing more open types of music. And it’s actually still going—I’m not on the board anymore, but I am a little bit involved. They just had a big event a couple of weeks ago which I was involved in. And I do think it’s important to try to encourage opportunities for people to perform. If you don’t have a little bit of a scene, not too much happens.
Tell me about the new album, Crossing the Passes—what do you think it says about where you are right now, creatively speaking?
I would say the music on it is a little more complex, structurally, than some of the earlier things. There are a bunch of tunes that have quite a few meter changes, and so on—especially fast tunes that have a bunch of meter changes; they’re always kind of challenging to play. So I think that is an item that’s kind of manifesting itself as a little bit of a trend. The other thing is—and some of this has to do with the influence of Carson, who listens a lot to hip-hop and other sorts of music like that; he played a bunch in some indie rock bands for a while. He’s not doing that now, but that’s been an influence, so the influence of that kind of music is also coming into the quartet’s music. So I think that’s another thing you’ll hear, like “Smooth Curve of the Bow,” for example, has some of those influences, and also “Traversing the Maze.” The other thing is, I think we’re continuing to develop what I refer to as compositional group improvisation, and when I say that I just mean that when we’re playing, we try to create something that’s totally spontaneous, that also has inherent structure to it. So it’s not like, “I take a solo, then you take a solo, and we’ll just create a bunch of energy,” or something. We actually create something that, if you look at it as a whole, has form. So I think we’re increasingly developing our skills in doing that. Everybody in the band really plays for the group. They don’t just go, OK, now it’s time for me to play; I’m going to throw out these licks that I worked on last month, or whatever. They’re listening to what went on before, what the flow of the overall performance has been, and then what they put in is totally within that context, so that the group creates a group statement. I think that we’re continuing to develop that.
Rich Halley‘s music is available physically and digitally from Amazon.