Zen and the Art of Musical Maintenance | Music | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Zen and the Art of Musical Maintenance 

Gary Peacock

click to enlarge Bassist Gary Peacock - FIONN REILLY
  • Fionn Reilly
  • Bassist Gary Peacock

What is Zen?

"I asked one of my teachers that once," says Gary Peacock on a gray Woodstock afternoon, when the subject of his long association with Eastern philosophy comes up. "He told me, 'Just do what you do while you're doing it.' We live in a world where we're pushed into always doing more than one thing at the same time. And I've found I'm not good at adding anything to what I'm already doing."

What Peacock has been doing, most famously, for 58 years, has been playing the bass—in a groundbreaking, infinitely creative, and hugely acclaimed way. Having worked with some of the most important names in jazz, he's the possessor of an approach that effortlessly embodies all of the modern era's major stylistic developments: bop, cool, free, avant-classical. Rich in tone, his is a deceptively deep, uncluttered sound; understated yet somehow speaking volumes. But although Peacock comes across as an intensely focused artist to whom playing is akin to breathing, he's taken some winding, searching paths to find his place.

"There was very little musical input there," he says about Burley, Idaho, where he was born in 1935. "My grandfather was a violinist and had a band with my two uncles before I came along. My mom played piano, but we didn't own one then. There was classical on the radio, which I loved—Bach, Mendelssohn, Schubert. But there was no jazz around. My introduction to jazz came when I was 15, when we lived in Oregon. I heard a broadcast by this trio that turned out to be [pianist] Teddy Napoleon, [drummer] Gene Krupa, and [saxophonist] Illinois Jacquet, which was, like, 'Wow, what's that?' I started studying piano and joined a high school dance band on drums. We got asked to play the graduation dance, which was a totally transformative experience. By the end of the set, everything was already done in my mind. I went up to the school president and said, 'I know what my life's going to be about.'"

Peacock was accepted at Westlake College of Music in Los Angeles, where he studied basic theory, along with piano, vibraphone, and drums. But before he could step out as a full-fledged working musician, as the Cold War was revving up Uncle Sam came calling. "I got drafted," he recalls. "[The Army] stationed me in Germany." The potentially music career-destroying assignment, however, turned out to be incredibly fortuitous. In 1956, while enlisted Peacock was playing piano in a jazz combo led by future Ramsey Lewis drummer Red Holt at officers' clubs when the band's bassist quit. "He'd just gotten married and his wife didn't want him playing out anymore," Peacock explains. "So Red told me, 'You're gonna play the bass from now on.' I said, 'What? I'm a piano player, I don't know how to play the bass!' But he insisted, he told me he knew I could do it. And without any teachers I just kind of figured it out, just by hunting and pecking. So I became a bass player by default. The way that all happened was a great and pronounced introduction to uncertainty, which has really been invaluable."

After his discharge Peacock stayed on in Germany, working with European jazzmen Hans Koller and Atilla Zoller and visiting US players Tony Scott, Bud Shank, and Bob Cooper. In 1958 he headed back to LA, where he plunged into the cool jazz scene during its height, gigging and recording with Shank, Art Pepper, Barney Kessel, Shelly Manne, Shorty Rodgers, Terry Gibbs, and other West Coast giants. "It was a cheap to live in LA back then, and there were lots of opportunities to work," remembers Peacock, who at that time also forged a crucial alliance with the pianist Paul Bley. "One thing I learned early on was that when you get a call for a gig, you don't ask questions, you just say yes. So when I got a call from Paul, whose name I knew without knowing his music, I took the gig. I don't recall what the first tune was, but it was written in E sharp and he had me start it in that key. But he came in on E flat, so after one bar I switched to E flat to accommodate him. But he looked over and said, 'No, stay in E sharp!' [Laughs.] So that was my first encounter with playing in opposing keys."

In 1961 the bassist married the young composer, vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and future Woodstock local Annette Peacock and soon relocated to New York (the couple separated in 1970). There, he joined the legendary Bill Evans Trio, a band he describes as "a bass player's dream" for its superlative use of space and simpatico, contrapuntal dynamics. "[Evans] had such a light touch," says Peacock of the late piano god. "It really allowed the bass to be totally full, tonally." He also landed another dream job, briefly playing with Evans's former boss, Miles Davis. "Miles was a great teacher, and one of the most human people I've ever known," the bass man says. "No matter how many other people he was playing with and how much was going on in the room, he could listen to everything at the same time and not miss a thing. He heard it all."

As he worked with comparatively commercially successful artists like Davis, Evans, reedsman Jimmy Giuffre, and pianist-arranger George Russell, Peacock also became an increasingly active participant in the radical free jazz revolution that was beginning to explode the city's underground, collaborating with such upstarts as saxophonists Archie Shepp, Roland Kirk, and Steve Lacy, trombonist Roswell Rudd, and trumpeter Don Cherry. His most famous free jazz tenure, however, came in 1964, when he hooked up with the fire-breathing saxophonist Albert Ayler's trio for the landmark Spiritual Unity, the first album released by the vital ESP-Disk label. Arguably the definitive early statement of the genre, Spiritual Unity, which also features drummer Sunny Murray, divided listeners with its visceral screaming and formless, primitive power. Detractors of Ayler and his stylistic comrades, if they didn't simply run in the opposite direction, sometimes reacted violently; Peacock recalls bottles being thrown at the band in France. So were there ever moments of self-doubt as they stood their artistic ground?

"There was no ground to stand," says Peacock. "We did what we did, and the music simply was what it was. Music, if it's honest, is an offering, a gift. And a true gift is given with nothing expected in return. Playing free is about non-conceptualization—you never know what's going to happen next. After digesting everything about structure and key and learning all these standards, you're free to play and anything goes. But if anything goes, you also get people with no foundation who just [musically] throw up. Which isn't the same thing." Still, despite Peacock's decisive dedication to Ayler's vision, by the end of the decade that experience and others were beginning to take their toll. In 1969, after a brief return to Miles Davis's band to stand in for Ron Carter, he left the scene. "If I hadn't stopped playing then, I would be dead today," he maintains. "I basically had a nervous breakdown, which was precipitated by LSD use with Timothy Leary. It really shook me. I knew that I was, but I didn't know who I was."

So that year Peacock moved to Japan, in order to study the country's philosophy, medicine, language, tai chi, and macrobiotic cooking at their source. "I didn't stop playing entirely, though," says the musician, whose interest in Eastern thought began with the discovery of author Alan Watts's works in the early 1960s. "Sony Records heard I was living there and looked me up to make some records with [pianist] Masabumi Kikuchi," Peacock says, referring to his first two efforts as a leader, 1970's Eastward and 1971's Voices. "I think they checked every monastery in Japan, trying to find me [laughs]." He returned to the US in 1972, performing less frequently as he earned a degree in biology at the University of Washington and went on to teach music theory at Cornish University.

But in 1977 the bass player returned to the stage and the studio with renewed vigor, beginning his ongoing and fruitful relationship with ECM Records, which has resulted in several releases under his leadership, and forming a group with two fellow former Miles men, pianist Keith Jarrett and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Informally dubbed the Standards Trio, the threesome has primarily concentrated on reshaping jazz and Great American Songbook evergreens. "The first time I heard Gary play was on an album with Bill Evans and [drummer] Paul Motian," says DeJohnette, a Woodstock-area resident who was profiled in the November 2010 issue of Chronogram. "I was very impressed with his sound, choice of notes, and, above all, the buoyancy of his playing. He is truly one of the great jazz masters of the acoustic bass." The trio's newest opus, the live Somewhere (ECM), was released this year and features awe-inspiring readings of Davis's "Solar," Leonard Bernstein's "Tonight," and the title Stephen Sondheim tune.

Another of Peacock's productive affiliations is the one he's cultivated with pianist Marilyn Crispell (another Woodstocker, Crispell was featured in the March 2010 issue of Chronogram). In Crispell's trio, the two played with Motian and cut the stellar ECM albums Nothing ever was, anyway (1997) and Amaryllis (2001) before the drummer's 2011 passing. This year for the label the duo of Peacock and Crispell waxed Azure, a deep, gorgeous set that moves between animated conversation and profound contemplation. "Gary's a really sensitive musician with a great harmonic sense, and he knows how to keep the music simple and not try to fill up all the space by playing too many notes," Crispell says. "But he also knows how to lead, he's very grounded and strong as a player. We'd done tours as a duo [before the recording] and talked about making a duo album, so it was great to finally do this one. I think a huge part of why we work so well together is that we both meditate a lot, which is something we actually do together whenever we we're on tour."

It was Crispell who first told Peacock about Zen Mountain Monastery, the Buddhist center established in Woodstock in 1985, and it's there that Peacock has been doing much of his meditating for the last 14 years. "For a long time, I was convinced I could solve questions by thinking," says Peacock, who resides in a cabin in the Liberty area. "But I decided that wasn't working, and I started sitting again. I've lived alone for 20 years, which is fine. I have no problem with that at all; I have more of opportunities to pay attention to the life going on around me. I get up in the morning, I have my coffee or my tea, and I play."

And after nearly six decades of playing, what is that keeps him doing it? "That's something that's none of my business," says Peacock. "It's not my decision to play. It's something far, far bigger than me. At the same time, though, I have the deepest gratitude to Keith, Jack, and Marilyn. I wouldn't be able to do this music without them."

Thinking back to that very first performance he did, at the high school dance in 1950s Oregon, Peacock recalls the instant the divine light hit him. "It wasn't so much like I was playing the music, but, rather that I was being played by it," he says. "Something just washed over me. It went from the bottom of my toes all the way to the top of my head. I can still feel it now."

Gary Peacock will perform with pianist Niels Lan Doky and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts on November 13 at 7:30pm at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. Jalc.org. Somewhere and Azure are out now on ECM Records. Ecmrecords.com.

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