Sal Mosca - Interview

Pianist Sal Mosca was one of the most musically gifted of the Tristano School players who enjoyed a critically important position in modern jazz from the late 1940s onwards. As a pianist he was as gifted as Tristano himself. His style developed independently of Tristano's, and was quite divergent in his later years. Though not among the most well-known of those players, he was achieving recognition towards the end of his life, despite an uncompromising rejection of the commercial imperatives of his art. His searching, exploratory improvisations graced some of the most important Tristano School recordings, notably 'Lee Konitz - With Warne Marsh' on Atlantic.

He was once of the most accomplished of piano stylists in modern jazz. Mosca was born in Mount Vernon, New York, in 1927, and after World War II, under the GI Bill, studied classical music theory and performance at New York University, and New York College of Music. After graduation he studied with Lennie Tristano, and became a key member of his school of players. From 1949 to 1965 he worked with Lee Konitz, appearing on classic recordings such as 'Lee Konitz - With Warne Marsh', and recorded as a leader himself in the late 50s. During the 1970s he performed with Konitz and Warne Marsh, and – despite his negative comments about Konitz's later playing in this interview – in 1971 released an excellent largely duo album with Konitz, Spirits. He gave solo concerts in New York, and in the late 70s and 80s led groups with Marsh. After recovery from major illness his career underwent a renaissance in the new millennium, and he became an active teacher again. He died in 2007.

In order to remain independent, he recorded and produced most of his own work. Most recent compilations were released by Dan Fiore, who started Zinnia Records in order to release Mosca material. The interview with him was done by telephone in 2005, as part of the research for my book Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser's Art (Michigan University Press, 2007). (In that book, Konitz vigorously contests Mosca's criticisms.) I got the impression of a very selfsufficient, totally dedicated artist, of absolute musical purity and integrity, and strong opinions. More information about Mosca's work is found at www.salmosca.com

Andy Hamilton: You have an Italian background, like Tristano.

Sal Mosca: My parents were born in the United States, but they had an Italian background - from Naples.

AH: How did you first meet him? And Lee Konitz?

SM: I met Tristano in 1947. I played a club date with Don Ferrera, a trumpet-player, and he told me he was studying with Lennie. I studied till 1955 – eight years…We used to have jam sessions, and I met Lee at one of those. Tristano influenced me in many, many ways. First of all he was very sincere, and very honest. He was very deep. When I was with him, I felt I could go deeper myself, into myself. He helped me tremendously with music, of course – harmonically, melodically, rhythmically, with eartraining – records with Bird and Pres. He also got me to read more – I got more interested in Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Reich. He would get these talking books from the Library of Congress, so he was very well-read. He also was very health-conscious – he recommended eating a good breakfast, therefore you felt energetic at the beginning of the day, and could have a good day of practice....We were friends for 30 years after I stopped studying with him – he was a big influence on my life. He was a charismatic man. Absolutely.

AH: Konitz talks of real improvisation in contrast to prepared playing – did Tristano stress this?

SM: Sure. Lee may have had that idea first, I don’t know. But spontaneity was a big thing for Tristano. Playing in lots of different places caused Lee to split from the Tristano group, who were more choosy. Before I met Lennie, I felt the same way – I didn't want to play with just anybody, with people who were mediocre.

AH: You now play a lot solo – how long has that been the case?

SM: I used to play mostly with groups, mostly with Lee and Warne. In the 60s, Lee went off and starting playing with a lot of other people. And Warne moved to California, and so did Don [Ferrara]. So all the people I was used to playing with were gone. So I said to myself, 'I'm going to have to do it by myself', and that's what got me into solo playing.

AH: What do you feel about Lee's playing?

SM: I like Lee's playing of course. But I especially liked his early playing – from '47 up to about '62. I didn't think it was so cerebral. It was original. It was the only original music going on, on altosaxophone, beside what Bird was playing, because everyone was imitating Bird. And Lee was told by Lennie not to play that way, but to stay in his own style – and therefore he would make a name for himself rather than just be another Charlie Parker imitator. And that's what happened.

AH: Yet he still got a lot of things from Parker?

SM: Well, some. I don't think he got that much from Charlie Parker. He got more from Lennie and Lennie's group.

AH: When you said you liked his earlier playing up to '62, what changed – what happened to it?

SM: He started playing with all these other people – people who were as good as him, people who were worse than him, and people who were sort of indifferent to him. And when you expose yourself to a lot of different musical situations, you start to lose your own core, your own way of playing. I feel that's what happened to Lee. He played with everybody, and when you play with other people you have to blend in with them, and include them in your playing. You start to get all these other influences, and eventually they weaken your own individual concept.

I heard his last record, that was made in Europe with strings, and a guitar-player. It sounded dead, like he had died ten years ago. It was like a ghost of what he was able to play years ago...I'm not familiar with all his recordings, he may have made some that were good.

AH: Konitz says that unlike Warne Marsh, he was not playing so much in that complicated polyrhythmic style that Tristano pioneered, but more freely – was that a change you noticed?

SM: Lee I think does play polyrhythmically but true, he doesn't stretch out as much with it as Warne did. But rhythmically he's not what I would call a simple player, I think he's sophisticated.

AH: Did you notice a change in his tone that you didn't like?

SM: Well, his tone is as I said earlier, is pretty much the same now as it used to be – but it's more dead now, it's not alive, fully in the present. It's got a sort of a hollow, dead ring to it. But I don't think it's changed that much except in that emotional content I just mentioned. I think there was more up front emotion, in keeping with how he was as a person – and now I think there's a gap between what he expresses emotionally and where he is emotionally. Still he's in his 70s and it's a hard instrument to keep going. Well, it's possible. Speaking for myself, I don't think I play like a 70-year-old man. My playing has kept evolving over the years into a better and better place. It's more expanded than it was – I can do a lot more now than I could in 1950.

AH: You were quite ill, and since then you've been playing more gigs.

SM: Yeah I was very ill. I had open-heart surgery, and there was a period of about three years when I didn't teach, and I didn't play, and I didn't go out. I was too weak. But this past year – 2004 – has been very, very productive. I've made several records, and played at Birdland a couple times, concerts and radio shows...and had write-ups in the New York Times. I started teaching again, and having sessions again.

AH: Who have you been playing with?

SM: I've been playing a lot with Jimmy Halpern, who's a tenor-player. He's excellent. And a bassplayer called Don Messina, and on drums, Bill Chattin, or Skips Scott. I also played with Sonny Dallas a little while ago. He's one of the original Tristano players. Yeah. He's playing electric bass rather than acoustic bass. I prefer him on acoustic bass, but he doesn't have the strength to play it any more – he was sick himself, he also had heart surgery. He lost all of his strength, and you need a lot of strength to play acoustic bass. So he switched to electric. I just don't like that electrified sound, though he plays it well.

AH: Do you feel as Lee does that you're not part of the main black tradition of the music – that the blues is not really your natural means of expression?

SM: I don't agree with that. I used to feel that way. As you know the Negroes started playing the blues, and they played it because they were oppressed... But then I was thinking, 'I'm not black, but I've had a lot of bad experiences, I had a rough childhood, I had health problems, so I gotta right to sing the blues too, even though I'm white.' So I do feel a part of the tradition, definitely, with the black people... The black people in general are really corny. They like rhythm and blues, and hip-hop, and doo-wop, and all that stupid shit. Just because a person's black doesn't automatically mean he appreciates Charlie Parker, or Lester Young, or Billie Holiday. A lot of them don't even know those names. I'm white, sure, but I've got a lot of blues to sing, and I've learned how to do it, through music.

AH: Would Tristano have agreed with that?

SM: I don't know, I never discussed it with him.

AH: But it's claimed that he was setting up a white tradition in jazz.

SM: I don’t think so. If he did he was wasting his time – because he was influenced by black players himself. By Art Tatum, and Lester Young, by Charlie Parker, and Roy Eldridge.

AH: Like Konitz and Tristano, you focus a lot on standards.

SM: Yeah, that's it – just standards. Most of the originals I like are based on standards. I've composed some that are based on standards, and some that are not.

AH: What is the reason for focussing on that repertoire?

SM: Because they're the best songs. They're better than folk music, better than classical or opera – they speak of the people, and they speak of Broadway, and they speak of love and they're by some of the greatest composers – Gershwin, Kern...it's much more pleasant to be singing a beautiful song inside yourself while you're improvising, than to be singing some senseless ditty.

AH: Do you know the lyrics of them?

SM: Yeah. I don't have every lyric memorised, but I know the lyrics to all the songs. I've taught many singers, so I hear the lyrics a lot, and they're important to me – but I don't think of them all the time.

AH: You've always been a teacher?

SM: Since I was 15! My first [piano] teacher, Duke Jessup, got me into playing scales, chords, and standards – and In a Mist by Bix Beiderbecke. I studied with him for a year – in Mount Vernon, where I still live – it's about 15 miles from New York City. After a year, he gave up teaching because his wife was going to have a baby, and she said either you get a regular day job or I'm going to leave you. So he gave me the five pupils he had... Some were adults, and some were younger people, but I could see that even though I had only been studying a short time and some of them had been studying longer, that I knew more than they did. I've been teaching ever since.

AH: Do you have a method for teaching improvisation? And have you written about it?

SM: Yes. But I've just passed it on to my students verbally, I've never written anything about it. It's a step-by-step introduction to a lot of things. First of all you have to know your scales, you have to know your chords – four-part chords. Then I teach the melody of a song, and put the chords to it – then I start them improvising, first with very simple rhythms, like half-notes and quarter-notes, and then later on with triplets and eighth-notes and sixteenth-notes. I teach them how to rest. Everything is played very slowly until it starts to come together. In the meantime I'm having people sing with records, listen to records – teaching of ear-training. It's a lot of things that go into it.

AH: Do you think your approach is, like Lee's more melodic than harmonic?

SM: Well, Lee would be more melodic because he's a saxophone player. You can't escape harmony if you're a piano-player. But also the melodic end and the rhythmic end is a big part of my teaching.

SELECTED RECORDINGS

  • Lee Konitz - Subconscious-Lee (Prestige-New Jazz, 1949)

  • Lee Konitz - With Warne Marsh (Atlantic, 1955

  • with Lee Konitz – Spirits (1971) [check]

  • Sal Mosca - A Concert (Jazz, 1979)

  • Warne Marsh/Sal Mosca Quartet - Vol.1&2 (Zinnia, 1981)

  • Sal Mosca - Recital in Valhalla (Zinnia, 1991)

  • Jimmy Halperin - Psalm (Zinnia, 1997)

  • Sal Mosca – Recital in Valhalla (Zinnia, 2004)

  • Sal Mosca – Thing-ah-mahjig (Zinnia, 2005)

  • Sal Mosca – You Go To My Head (Blue Jack Jazz, 2008)

Published in Jazz Journal, Dec. 2010

Many thanks to Sal's son Stephen Mosca for help with the interview and article.

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