Photo: Jorge Rivera
Jeremy Pelt is a trumpeter with eight albums as a leader going back to the turn of the millennium, including three (with a fourth on the way) fronting the Jeremy Pelt Quintet, which includes recent Burning Ambulance cover subject JD Allen on tenor sax, Danny Grissett on piano, Dwayne Burno on bass, and Gerald Cleaver on drums. (Allen and Pelt first played together on the saxophonist’s 2002 album Pharaoh’s Children, and later reunited on Cleaver’s 2006 release Detroit.) He’s recorded for Fresh Sound and MaxJazz in the past, and is currently on HighNote. He’s also a trumpet teacher at the University of Hartford.
The Jeremy Pelt Quintet’s sound, which has evolved substantially over the course of three albums (2008’s November, 2009’s Men of Honor, and 2011’s The Talented Mr. Pelt) is clearly—sometimes blatantly—indebted to the work of the Miles Davis Quintet of 1965-68, particularly that group’s earliest work, on albums like E.S.P. and Miles Smiles. But there’s a lot more to Pelt and his music than that. He’s worked with strings (on 2003’s Close to My Heart), added electric instruments and funk/R&B grooves (on 2005’s Identity and 2007’s Wired: Live at Smoke), and has done impressive sideman work with a variety of players. He’s a traditionalist, and/but he doesn’t feel he needs to defend that quality in his music. I don’t feel like it needs defending, either. Free playing and ultra-abstract improvisation are just alternate sets of rules. Pelt believes in blues and swing, and perhaps more importantly, in the power and importance of a captivating and memorable melody. And when he’s playing, he’ll make you a believer, too.
This is an excerpt from a longer interview which will appear in the upcoming print edition of Burning Ambulance.
You graduated Berklee, and you teach at the University of Hartford; do you think players of your generation and players younger than yourself are overeducated in some sense? Is it possible to study your way out of being able to swing?
Well, I’d have to say that you’re spot on, in that there is a general amount of over-education. You know, it’s interesting that when you think about it, when all is said and done, jazz record sales in general are always at the bottom of the heap in terms of what’s being bought; the money to be made in jazz is in education. Which is almost funny. But getting more to the point, I do think that there’s an over-education, and that’s to make up for the fact that a lot of the masters are gone. There wasn’t an incubating period like there was in the ’80s, where you could play in Art Blakey’s band or Horace Silver’s band or all these different bands and you’d learn something. That doesn’t exist anymore, and I think my generation, or a few players in my immediate generation, really got the tail end of that. But for the generation after us, that’s completely lost. And that’s unfortunate that, in a sense, they have gone to school, but school can only teach you so much, and what’s really lacking from the schools is a kind of hard-luck education. And that’s what you got from working; it made you or broke you. Because school is a place where you’re coddled a lot. They don’t like to admit it, but it’s like “try this, and try this,” whereas the education that you got playing with the cats was quite different. And when you made it out, you were that much better for it. So a lot of what’s going on from this younger generation, while very interesting stuff no doubt, isn’t as lived-in, I would say, than the [music of the] older but still young veterans that have been through the movers and shakers of the music.
It does seem like there’s this sound of academic jazz around a lot lately—to pick the alto saxophone as an example, there’s more wannabe Steve Colemans than wannabe Cannonball Adderleys.
Yeah, well, one of the things that I find is that it’s a very territorial thing. I travel quite a bit, and using the same instrument, let’s say you go to the Midwest, or middle America, you’re not really going to find many students that are going to sound like a Steve Coleman as much as they’re gonna be sounding like your Charlie Parkers or your Sonny Stitts, if they have a tenacity about them to tackle that. Likewise, if you’re in some parts of Europe, like Italy, you’re gonna have people that more embrace the bebop side, where if you go to Scandinavia, they don’t really have much of a hold on bebop like they used to. They’re looking more towards the avant-garde. So I feel like it’s a territorial thing. If you go to the big cities in the States, New York or Chicago, maybe, then you’ll have a kind of quote-unquote hipper crowd. And hipper doesn’t mean better. It means they’re trying to get in tune with what they think is now.
How did you meet JD Allen and start working together?
I met JD back when I was in college and he was in Betty Carter’s band. Then after that, I moved to New York and he was playing with Winard Harper, and Phil Harper hooked me up with a couple of gigs with Winard’s band, so I got a chance to play with him then, and then we started really recording in 2001, when he made that record Pharaoh’s Children on Criss Cross. Interestingly enough, that was supposed to be my date, and I backed out of it because of some other label interest at the time. I was still in Ralph Peterson’s band at that point, and Ralph was contemplating using JD whenever Jimmy Greene couldn’t make it, and when I backed out of the date, I think Orrin Evans talked Criss Cross into giving the date to JD, and Gerry [Teekens, head of Criss Cross] was like, if I do, you’re gonna have to put Jeremy Pelt on it. So that’s how I ended up on the date. I did a couple of songs, we had a vibe together, and then years later I was called by the drummer Gerald Cleaver to play in his band. I’d never even met Gerald, but I was at a point where I was wanting to branch out and do some things I’d never done before, so I’d started accepting different types of gigs. And with Gerald, he had this band with myself and JD in it, and Gerald and JD go back over 20 years, to their time in Detroit, and so we did a recording with Gerald, and it was a great recording, and I was listening back to it one day, particularly the vibe that Gerald and JD got when they played together. It struck me in a very profound way. And so when I decided to put together my quintet, I called Gerald and I called JD. And that was in 2006 or 2007.
This quintet’s music seems to owe a lot to the Miles Davis quintet of 1965. How do you see this group’s music fitting into the context of 2011, or do you feel you’re creating your own context?
Well, I mean, as a rule I really don’t answer those questions because they’re incriminating. I’d rather hear your thoughts on where you see it.
Well, I’m not sure what to think. I’ve only recently started listening to straight-ahead players like yourself and JD and Orrin Evans, ’cause I spent a lot of time paying attention to the free jazz scene, but now as I get older I’m finding myself more and more interested in melody and swing. So I’m just starting to hear all these young players who are doing stuff that, I guess the best way I can put it is, their music—and your music—would sound like jazz to anybody you played it for.
I’ll say this. There’s very little music out there that you’ll find today or in the ’80s or in the ’70s or in the ’60s that isn’t derivative, and there’s a root to a lot of different music, and as much as there is a Miles influence—which there is, it’s undeniable and I would never, like I’ve seen other artists lie and act like they’ve never heard of Miles, or whatever—there is that influence, but there’s many different influences, too, that springboard. I’m not gonna rhapsodize about where I see it, I think it’s very legitimately played and a lot of what’s happening in the music, in my music, comes from a lot of different points of view that maybe weren’t expressed in any of the recordings of the Miles Davis group. We use that, we’ve listened to it, we’ve all soaked it in, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be—we’re not practitioners of garnering that sound. It’s a tremendous blanket to play under.
Your earlier albums didn’t have steady personnel—the band changed date by date. Now you’ve got a working band that’s made three albums together. How does that impact your approach?
Well, it’s particularly exciting. As a footnote, we’re about to do our fourth album. It impacts it pretty much the way you’d think. After a certain amount of years together, we’re able to sit and know what each other is thinking to a certain point, and there’s a lot of familiarity within the group. So as a result, when new music is brought in, we’re not spending a whole lot of time trying to get the vibe of a specific piece. It’s already there due to our camaraderie and our rapport on the stage. That’s the beautiful thing about having a working band, as opposed to something that’s just put together.
What do you see as the developmental arc of this band so far, and where do you see it going?
This next record especially is further into the realm of composition and not all the songs are—pretty much all my records after November have kind of followed the same type of general concept, which is about the length of the song. So they’re very compact in nature, and really geared toward making a statement. And a very mature statement. So expect more of that.