Jonny King leads two lives. At night, he plays the piano in New York jazz clubs with some of the finest musicians on the planet. By day, the Harvard Law School graduate toils as an attorney in a copyright practice. It isn't easy getting up on a Monday morning after closing at Bradley's with Steve Wilson at 3:30 the night before. Obviously, the twenty-nine year old pianist/composer is deeply dedicated to jazz, having played with Joshua Redman, Billy Pierce, Kenny Garrett, Bobby Watson, Greg Osby, OTB, Ralph Moore and Billy Drummond, and having had his compositions recorded by Drummond, Pierce and Tony Reedus. This recording marks the native New Yorker's debut as leader.
But why law? "I've always been one of those people who likes to do two or three things at the same time," King acknowledges. As a student at Princeton, he played with Kenny Garrett and Ralph Moore in a series of concerts he produced, and was already committed to playing jazz and composing. After graduation, he worked around New York, yet kept his options open, applying to Harvard Law School. The Boston relocation of his girlfriend, Rosanna, and his acceptance at Harvard, led King to temporarily put the emphasis on law.
"I had a few brushes with copyright law, and when I considered law school, I knew it would probably be good for my own purposes to have a thorough understanding of copyright law. That turns out to be true," he reveals. For his thesis, King wrote a paper on jazz and copyright law that received an award and publication from ASCAP.
In Boston, he played extensively with Pierce and Alan Dawson, as well as fellow Harvard student (undergrad) Joshua Redman. Although King planned on returning to New York after graduation, Rosanna became ill with cancer and Jonny spent the next four years caring for her, and working in Boston as a lawyer and musician.
Rosanna passed away in July of '93, and King was back in New York within a week. Reuniting with friends Billy Drummond and guitarist Freddie Bryant, King bought a Steinway, played five sessions within the first seven days of his return to the Big Apple, and he's been performing in town consistently ever since.
This recording marks a "demarcation point for me," King believes, "playing with musicians I knew from before. The title refers to my return to New York, and, to making this record on January second, when it was freezing out. We'd literally come in from the cold, and metaphorically I'd returned to New York and recuperated from what I'd been through, coming back to music and everything that I loved and felt comfortable with."
Jonny King feels very comfortable about Vincent Herring who, in his opinion, "is an incredible player who plays with more intensity than almost anyone I've ever played with. Bassist Marcus McLauren and I did some gigs with Vince, and Marcus used to say that Vince played every solo like it was the last one he was going to play. He's got a real swagger to his playing and this huge sound, the biggest alto sound I've ever heard."
King knew tenor saxophonist Mark Turner a bit in Boston, but was "completely blown away by Mark on this date. He has one of the most interesting sets of influences you could imagine. When we were in Boston, he was heavily into Trane and Joe Henderson and then he got heavily into Warne Marsh, which is a totally different angle. What has emerged is this incredibly fluid style. Harmonically, Mark is a really intricate player and, he plays differently from anyone I know. Having Mark and Vince on this recording makes for a nice contrast, because Vince plays with so much intensity, while Mark is more of a cerebral, finesse type player. He's got this great altissimo, too.
Bassist Ira Coleman is a long-time King associate. "We've played in many different situations. We did duo gigs together, he's played in my bands, and we've been sidemen together. And we're also friends beyond that. Ira's got a great sound and beat. Among our generation, he's sort of the closest thing to a Ron Carter. He's got this really good natural sound that still sounds modern."
Enthusiastically, King reveals that "Billy Drummond is one of my closest friends and my favorite drummer to play with. Billy's got the best sounding drums and cymbals. His beat is right down the middle, so he swings really hard, but he's also extremely loose and responsive. In fact, Billy plays like he is."
"El Jefe was written while I was in law school on a terrible little electric piano". As for the title, "it's sort of a joke, because I used to call people 'chief' all the time, and 'jefe' means chief in Spanish." A number of King's compositions have Spanish titles, due to his mother's Bolivian heritage and to his frequent exposure to the language.
King explains that, "Fire and Brimstone is compositionally a pretty technical tune. It's a serial composition, based on a principal tone row--that's when you take all twelve notes in a scale and rearrange them in another order."
"At the beginning of the tune, the bass and piano play a tone row and at the end of the tune, play the same tone row backwards, and I superimpose the harmonies. Because it has a fairly dissonant line, it has a dark sound. I called it 'Fire and Brimstone' because, after we played the composition at a college in Pennsylvania, I was on this street corner in Greenwich Village one night. There was this complete lunatic, preaching about how we were all going to burn to ashes. He was one of these messianic preacher types who kept on screaming about fire and brimstone. What he said seemed to jibe with the sound of the tune. Actually, Billy thought it sounded like an Andrew Hill tune."
The title selection, In From The Cold, "is a really tough tune to play," King acknowledges, "although it's my favorite cut on the album. The composition goes from five four to four four to five four to three four, so it actually changes meters three times. The five four groove that's the basis of the tune was originally conceived of as a reggae beat. The other thing that's tricky about it, is that, in the five four section, the chord changes land on the fifth beat. But I didn't write it to be any meter. That's just what I heard, and I went back and figured it out later. On the session, the guys picked up the groove really well."
King has been playing The Giant and The Dwarf for a long time. "The melody shifts between twelve eight and double time four four, so there's four bars of this heavy plodding thing and then four bars of this swift melody breezing along at a really fast tempo. In fact, the whole melody keeps on switching between this clod-footed giant and this swift little dwarf."
The lone standard on this session, Sweet and Lovely, was included because "harmonically, there's a lot more going on and a lot more to work with than most other standards. We reharmonized the melody, so for every A section in the AABA form there are different changes."
Conundrum was written for his late girlfriend, Rosanna. "Rosanna was the person I knew best in the world, yet she was always kind of a riddle." On this version, King notes "Mark's presence in the background. He doesn't solo, but he plays a little countermelody that came out nicely."
On a number of gigs, King plays One Step Ahead, because it's "easy for other musicians to pick up. It's basically a montuno, where the accents and chord changes land on four instead of one."
King describes Blues For The Confused as "an out blues, ten bars long instead of the traditional twelve. You've really got to be paying attention when you play it, really stay on your toes. The melody is loosely based on blues harmonies but it departs from the basic chords rather quickly."
Now firmly ensconced in New York, King plans on "playing with as many great musicians as I can and establishing a reputation as a composer and arranger. At the same time, I want to lead or co-lead a regular group. The tunes on his record are pretty hard to play. The way I write, you can't just show up at a gig and stick the music in front of someone."
Influenced by the writing of Monk, Shorter, Tyner and Woody Shaw, King has been composing prolifically for years, filling manuscript books with hundreds upon hundreds of tunes.
"Independent of my playing, I want to keep working on my writing. It's very satisfying to have other musicians play my compositions. Billy Pierce recorded a couple of my tunes, and I can't tell you how great it was to hear the approach Mulgrew Miller took to my compositions."
"For me, writing is another viable way to channel my creativity. With playing, sometimes we ape one of the greats simply by just playing their lines. You can't do that with writing. There's no way you can write a Wayne Shorter tune, or a Thelonious Monk tune."
King's angular writing, harmonically advanced concept, and solid sense of swing announce yet another young piano wizard with a message and the means to deliver it.
Bret Primack, Somers, New York, August 1994.
This album is dedicated to the late Rosanna W. Graham (1965 - 1993).
Special thanks to Mom, Dad, Deb, Judith, Gideon, Jon, Zachary, Aliza, Sophie, Martha Graham, Freddie Bryant, Steve Wilson, Mulgrew Miller, and the great musicians and friends on this recording -- Billy, Ira, Vince, and Mark.
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