A funny thing happened on the way to Ted Piltzecker’s arrival as a jazz trumpeter — he became a vibraphonist. “I was a trumpet major at the Eastman School of Music,” explains the New Jersey native, “but I had a set of vibes in my dorm room and I would practice all the time. I played trumpet in the Jazz Ensemble, then directed by Chuck Mangione. One thing led to another, and I started writing some vibes things for myself with the band.”
His transformation to full-time vibes player came after a tour with The George Shearing Quintet. “I used to bring the trumpet with me when I was touring in Shearing’s band,” he recalls, “and I’d practice in the back of the bus with a whisper mute. I was never interested in being a screamer lead trumpet guy, and admired players like Art Farmer and Clark Terry. But at one point I realized that I was done with it. So when I got off one of the Shearing tours, I put the trumpet in the case, closed it, and it was out of the house the next day. I never touched it again.
As a born-again vibraphonist, Ted has performed with many of the great names in jazz, including guitarists Gene Bertoncini and Vic Juris, bassists Rufus Reid and Andy Simpkins, drummers Lewis Nash, Dennis Mackrel and Clarence Penn, pianists Jim McNeeley, John Hicks and Bill Charlap, and saxophonists Chris Potter and Javon Jackson.
In his previous four albums as a leader, Piltzecker hinted at his broad range of interests, from jazz standards to tangos to African-flavored numbers. OnBrindica, his fifth outing overall and debut for ZOHO Music, the vibraphonist/composer/bandleader takes listeners on a worldwide musical journey. The title Brindicareflects cultural influences from Brazil, India, and Africa but there are also stops in Bali, Cuba, Puerto Rico, New Orleans and Harlem. The diverse musical landscapes, people and traditions that Piltzecker encountered in his travels are woven into the tapestry of this very engaging album.
Recorded in Argentina with a core group of drummer and co-producer Fernando Martinez, pianist Miguel Marengo, bassist Mauricio Dawid and alto saxophonist Carlos Michelini, Brindicaalso features guest appearances by trumpeter Jon Faddis, baritone sax player Gary Smulyan, tenor saxophonist Ralph Lalama, trombonist Matt Hall and steel pan/snare drummer John Wooton. Classical clarinetist Ayako Oshima and classical flutist Tara Helen O’Conner appear on two tracks. And from Cuba, Jansel Torres adds an authentic flavor with his bata and conga playing on “Por Supuesto” while djembe drummer Dave Lewitt and percussionist Angel Lau enliven the 6/8 African factor on “From the Center.” Up-and-coming vocalist Taylor Burgess turns in a haunting interpretation of Langston Hughes’ poem “What Happens to a Dream Deferred?” with appropriately noirish backing from Piltzecker and his empathetic crew.
“I go to Argentina frequently to play the International Festival of Percussion in Patagonia, and that’s where I met Fernando Martinez.” explains the professor of music composition at the Purchase Conservatory of Music in New York. “We began playing together in clubs like Notorious in Buenos Aires with some great musicians. It felt so comfortable that I decided to stay and record some of my new music.”
The resulting album, Brindica, is easily Piltzecker’s most eclectic and personal statement to date. The band comes out of the gate charging on the buoyant, Afro-Cuban flavored opener “Great Idea! Who Pays?” Piltzecker’s vibes blend timbres with Wooton’s steel pan while Michelini blows bold tones over the top on the alto sax. The second-line groover “Uncle Peck” is punctuated by a potent horn section of trumpeter Faddis, bari ace Smulyan, trombonist Hall and tenor saxophonist Lalama. Catch Faddis’ expressive plunger solo and Marengo’s barrelhouse piano playing on this New Orleans flavored number. The Louisiana-born pan player Wooton switches to snare on this infectious tune to cop an authentic N’awlins second-line feel. “My mother was from New Orleans,” says the vibist-leader. “My father was a northern guy who stole her away from the south and took her to a life in New Jersey. We visited relatives in New Orleans frequently when I was growing up. My Uncle Peck, whose actual name was Preston, would go on for hours telling me, as a young boy, all about Mardi Gras. This song springs from these vivid memories and tries to capture some of the spirit of the place that always lived within my mom.”
The Latin flavored “Feliz Paseo,” fueled by a clave groove and Marengo’s hypnotic son montuno piano playing, features strong solo contributions from altoist Michelini. The ensemble switches gears on the title track, a through-composed piece that showcases the precision playing of internationally-renowned clarinetist Oshima and flutist O’Conner, a two time Grammy nominee. Piltzecker blends rhythmic elements of Brazilian and African music here while also introducing Xhosa click singing, popularized in the 1960s by South African singer Miriam Makeba. “I remember listening to her singing ‘Nongqongqo’ with Harry Belafonte on that famous live album (1960’s Returns To Carnegie Hall),” he recalls. “That’s a record I heard as a kid and just never forgot.” The leader also injects some South Indian Carnatic singing (or konokol) near the end of this exotic number.
Piltzecker’s breezy “Look At It Like This” was inspired by a trek through the Himalayas. “This is a cheerful melody that reflects those beautiful little pentatonic tunes that my guide Hari would sing as we hiked through stunning mountains in Nepal,” he explains. “This was a year and a half after a terrible earthquake hit the Himalayas and all these places were just leveled, including Hari’s own town about 60 miles to the north. And yet, here he was singing these happy folk songs with a big smile. It reminded me of the value of staying on the positive side. That’s what the song is about and I hope people feel good when they hear it.”
Tara returns to play alto flute on the Balinese gamelan-flavored “Ogoh, Ogoh,” a song inspired by a tradition in Bali where every year on the eve of Nyepi (day of silence) huge, menacing demon-like creatures are hoisted on platforms and carried through town in a parade. Then they are burned to insure a tranquil and loving existence for the coming year. “The music shows the peaceful Balinese spirit, goes briefly to a flourish, and then returns to a calm place,” says Ted.
On the Latin-flavored 6/8 romp “Por Supuesto,” Piltzecker harkens back to his own roots of playing trumpet in salsa bands around Rochester and Buffalo. “We used to play these dances that went late into the night. I’d look out into the audience and there’d be all three generations of people up and moving,” he says. “This was just about sharing the joy, and It was a wonderful thing to experience. A seed was planted about music and culture that never left me.”
Piltzecker recruited vocalist Burgess to interpret the lyrics of Langston Hughes’ “What Happens to a Dream Deferred?” “That iconic poem by Langston Hughes is familiar to many Americans, and should be known by all,” says Piltzecker. “We first played it as an instrumental ballad in South America. Then at a festival I tried an experiment. Before playing the music, I recited the poem line by line as each phrase was translated into Spanish. It was very clear how much more impactful it was for the audience when they knew the text and meaning. It ceased to be an instrumental at that point and became a song. Taylor delivered a very thoughtful performance.”
The driving “From The Center” is divided into three segments — a lively cut time section, a growling 5/4 middle section, and a hammering 6/8 section — and draws on tonalities, spirit and an undulating rhythm from Ghana. The album closes with a brief reprise of “Uncle Peck” to give listeners a little lagniappe.
There are many facets to my musical background,” says the ever-eclectic Piltzecker. “I still love bop and bluegrass, Indian and Brazilian music, Argentinian tangos, African music and Brahms. All of these influences have entered my thinking and collectively have become a point of view. It’s who I have become. It a great joy to be able to share this music, and I'm grateful to the extraordinary musicians on board.”— Bill Milkowski
Bill Milkowski is a regular contributor to Down Beat magazine. He is also the author of “JACO: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius” (Backbeat Books) and co-author of “Here And Now: The Autobiography of Pat Martino” (Backbeat Books)