SM: What were some of your first musical influences and what musical experiences were influential during your time as a young man growing up in London and in California?
RM: My very first, big, impact musically was listening to an old Louis Armstrong record that my mom used to play. My mom was in show business and her brother were tap dancers back in vaudeville. So my mom was very in touch with jazz music and she had a lot of it around the house and always played it and as a kid growing up, I heard a lot of jazz. Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Oscar Peterson, Earl Hines, Sarah Vaughn. Those are some of the things I can remember off the top of my head. But this Louis Armstrong record in particular. I was about ten years old and she was cleaning and whenever she started cleaning the music went on. She was cleaning and Louis got in to this thing I think it was maybe “When the Saints Go Marching In,” but it might have been something from the Hello Dolly album (they all meld into one at this point). At one point I was just playing and romping through the place and I stopped in my tracks because at this particular moment on this particular day, the trumpet sounded like it was words.
Louis was very lyrical...extremely lyrical. Everything he played was talking to you and it was like he said “Hey you...you need to check this out. You should try this. You should be doing this.” Now that sounds crazy and I recognize it does but that was my little experience at ten years old it just sort of grabbed me and said “huh, I think I would like to try to do that.” So I started pestering my mom for a trumpet and she got me a used trumpet from the pawnshop later that year as I was turning eleven and she got me a teacher. She knew somebody that played. As I mentioned before she was in show business so she knew musicians. Within a week or two of me getting my trumpet I had an instructor and he started teaching me. He would teach me rudimentary stuff: how to get a sound, how to make a scale, and then add on to my scales and he would teach me a song.
He thought it was important that I should know repertoire as well as working from an etude book. He would every so often bring me a standard and make me learn the standards. He also played saxophone. Per chance he stopped by and gave me a lesson one evening on the way to his gig and I asked him if I could see his sax and he showed it to me. This was around the one-year point for me. And I fell in love with that thing on sight. I already had a fair idea of what it sounded like because I was very much about commandeering the record player and playing the records.
When I got my trumpet everything else in my life ceased. And I just basically took over my mom’s record collection and wore everything out but when I got a look at that saxophone I was all in with that. Another year in, my father brought me to America and I joined the high school band. I migrated to California and began high school and consequentially then began to be exposed to different music.
The next really big influence for me was Stanley Turrentine. He was an absolutely huge, monstrous influence on me and within short order I began to sound like him. Transcribing solos, playing along with records, hours and hours and hours as a kid, you know? I knew all his inflections and everything. I could produce a sound like him and that was it for me. It wasn’t until I got to Boston to go to Berklee that I began to learn how to read chord changes. I had been playing by ear up until that point and I could play pretty well by ear. At that point I began to be influenced by other players: Sonny Sitt, eventually Coltrane and Sonny Rollins and people like that.
SM: Were there any local California groups that you would go out and see live? Besides listening to the records, were you out seeing and hearing live music at all?
RM: Well, in California at that time from 1972 on, there was a healthy high school and collegiate big band sort of scene, if you will. And so there were lots of competitions and things like that so I was exposed to a lot of other young musicians from time to time at different festivals up and down the coast and I can remember seeing at one festival called the Pacific Coast Jazz Festival. I think it takes place in Berkeley (at least it did back then in 1973) and the guest stars were Sonny Rollins, Freddie Hubbard, and Hubert Laws. So I got to see these people. I was still fairly young and I had some idea who they were but of course they made a big impact on me. Around locally there were local players that played around. I don’t think that any of them were quite as adept jazz speaking, but sure there were players around that inspired me; had great sounds or were enthusiastic about the music. I was inspired by anybody who was playing anything back then.
SM: I’ve read several different things about your high regards of Jerry Bergonzi. Were there were some other things besides Bergonzi that influenced you in Boston and involved at Berklee?
RM: When I first got to Boston, I didn't know anything about chord changes but I had a pretty good ear and a good sound. The teacher I got was a guy named Andy McGee who was a great saxophone player and had worked with Woody Herman and had a wonderful reputation around town and was a bebop saxophone player. He was my teacher and he immediately got me into chords and chord scales, learning tunes, transcribing solos and was a huge influence on me and had an incredible impact on me. [He] brought me along in short order to be able to be somewhat competent reading chords and really brought my repertoire to a lot of the standards that we play in the music.
Also, Billy Pierce was a teacher then; he was a huge influence. I can remember transcribing some of the things of his, some of the live things he did around town. So when I got to Boston there was a lot of stuff going on back in 1975. You had Paul’s Mall, The Jazz Workshop, Sandy’s Jazz Revival. You had various different clubs opening and closing all the time around Boston and a lot of places for students to play. 1369 Club, Pooh’s Pub, Sunflower Café are just a handful of some of the things I remember. Michael’s Pub where students used to play and faculty and people like that used to play; just people around town, and Jerry [Bergonzi] used to play. So it was a very healthy scene. I first heard Bill Evans [pianist] at The Jazz Workshop. My first month upon arriving in Boston, I took some of the few dollars I had left and went and saw Bill Evans, which was incredible. I really had an opportunity to really hear the real stuff once I got to Boston. Sonny Stitt, I heard in Boston.
SM: It sounds like you were doing quite a bit of transcribing, even in high school, but specifically when you got a little bit older and in Boston.
RM: You know the music that we play...it’s a language, you know? You have to learn to develop the language. Sure you want to say something of your own, but through a developed language and the ability to play this music with other musicians and improvise from it you have to understand a basic language. Maybe not such a basic language; it’s a pretty sophisticated language, right? But you have to begin somewhere and so transcribing is the best way to do it. It’s about observation. Listening and listening and listening to how somebody articulates, to how somebody places the pitch, where they place the timing, where they put their note in the timing, inflections. In time you gain insight on those things and develop your own sensibilities about it. Boston was really just the beginning. As incredible an experience it was, it wasn’t until I got to New York when I really started to play with some of these veterans that it ceased to be rudimentary and came off of the paper. Words become sort of meaningless and the music sort of speaks for itself.
SM: In past interviews, you have talked specifically about some lessons and things you’ve learned from Horace Silver and Roy Haynes. When you were playing with all these major figures, does a story or lesson stand out that you learned from these veterans?
RM: My experience with Horace Silver and Roy Haynes was immediately invaluable. Horace would pull me aside and say “Listen, on this kind of tune, on a ballad, play me a ballad. Don’t run a bunch of eighth notes. Save that stuff. Speak to me something meaningful on the ballads. Play the song. Don’t let your fingers fly over everything. Play the song. If we’re playing “Señor Blues”, play that. Speak to that.” And I’m using more words than he used. When you’re in there and you’re on the scene and you’re on the gig and you’re doing it, the less words the better. You’re already experiencing it and you’re actually doing a lot of communicating on the bandstand. As a young musician I wanted everything. And Horace was the one who actually verbally pulled me aside on the breaks and said “Nice on this, slow down on that, pace yourself. We’ve got two more sets.”
Back in those days on the weekends you’d do three sets. You’d do two sets a night from Tuesday to Thursday and then Friday and Saturday you’d do three sets and then Sunday you’d do two sets. Back in those days you got a gig in the club, you worked the whole week. That’s one of the things that has become lost for younger musicians: the opportunity to just play and play and play and play and play and play and play. We’d stop and get two weeks in Chicago or somewhere and I’d be hammering at this music for like two sets a night all through the week and three sets on the weekends for two weeks straight. It’s an incredible experience, you know?
Certain things apply. You have to hold the room. You do that by trying to speak to them a little bit. You do that gradually building and pacing yourself, judging the house and things like that. Horace was the master at that, so that wasn’t something I had to do. He was doing that. So yeah, he did give me instruction: when to pace myself, to slow down on the ballads, if we’re playing something funky, play funky, don’t run eighth notes. When we play a bop tune, then go in there and then run your bop stuff. I need you to be a broader player to make this gig. To Horace’s credit, he gets a full house way in to the 80s, I mean, three to four decades. He knew what he was doing playing bebop...kept a full house for at least four decades.
SM: A lot of your harmonic vocabulary seems to derive from the bebop and post bop language. Do you ever feel labeled as a certain kind of player? For example: retro or traditionalist?
RM: Without sounding rude, I never really cared what anybody thought of me. When my mom saw that she knew what it was like. When she saw I was really [into it] and this was it, she said “You’re probably gonna starve to death but if you’ve found something that you really love to carry you through your life, that might be more important.”
It's important to have something that you cling to and love. Something that makes your life meaningful. When I started playing I got my first horn around 1969-70, there was a million different influences. I wanted to play jazz. I didn’t care what anybody thought. I never cared what anybody thought. I wasn’t concerned that I wasn’t going to be a rich man. I actually loved this music. When you ask me the question that you asked me, my response is I honestly don’t care about what anybody else thinks. I’ve managed to seek out a career and a living doing what I love to do, and what anybody else thinks...I couldn’t care less.
I can tell you that when I was into Turrentine you would have called me a different kind of a player back then. It didn’t hold me. It wasn’t enough for me (not to say that Turrentine is not enough, he’s a great player, he had a huge breadth). I don’t mean to diminish Stanley at all, but I also wanted to get into some of the bebop players like Bird. I can remember transcribing Bird and trying to transcribe Sonny Rollins and Trane. When I got Trane it was like a very deeply moving, spiritual thing for me: his sound, his conception. I got swamped by the whole Coltrane thing, right around 1976-77. I was just awash in Coltrane. There was a time there for a year or two in Boston you would have heard me and said oh he’s a Sonny Stitt freak. He sounds just like Sonny Stitt. I bet he’s never listened to anybody else. People used to say that to me. Then I got into Trane and then they used to say, wow he’s another Coltrane clone. I never gave a damn. I think that all of these different influences that I’ve picked up served me well and when I finally came through and landed on my own two feet, I kind of had such a wealth of influences that I didn’t really sound like any of them. It wasn’t a deliberate thing; it’s just a consequence of loving all those styles and all those players. Later on I got in to Woody [Shaw] real hard. I got to play with him a few times. Freddie [Hubbard], of course, I had an extensive time playing with and all these people that pushed me incredibly: J.J. [Johnson]. Roy Haynes was an incredible influence on me time wise. He taught me how to swing. When I left Roy Haynes, I felt like I could play with anybody.
SM: Could you describe yourself as a player? How would you describe yourself and how would you describe your improvisation style?
RM: I don’t know because I know now I don’t really use the scale in the same way a lot of players do. I’ve grown to hate licks. I’ll walk ten miles in the opposite direction to get away from the lick. I hate anything cliché at all. I recognize that there are probably certain things about me that someone would say were perhaps, sort of typical of me, but if I get that notion I’m gonna run from it. I just want to create in the moment, you know?
I think that improvisation is just that and that maybe perhaps the way that it’s taught in the schools, maybe it’s time to move on a little bit from that. There are a lot of great schools, a lot of great instruction going on, but a lot of young players seem to feel trapped with what I came up doing and they wanna do something else. My response to that is that if you feel trapped in it, then maybe you’re trapped in your conception or your capability because I don’t think this music is just as free as you could conceive it. We have over a hundred years now of evolution, decade after decade after decade after decade on the same things. How is it that all of a sudden the generation that perhaps feels stifled or trapped somehow also represents the generation where the music seems to be maybe tapering off somehow? I don’t think it’s a coincidence, I think that there’s a connection there.
You can either see yourself in it or you can’t. After a hundred years of innovation I don’t see how a generation could come along and feel that there’s no more room in it. I think that they’ve been maybe seduced away by commercialism and the need to make money perhaps. Although commercialism doesn’t guarantee you money, either. I don’t know...I’m not part of that generation.
SM: As I transcribed a lot of your playing I noticed there are specific characteristics. Are you thinking about those or do they just come out?
RM: Well, for me, I think in terms of harmonic devices. For instance, diminished scales are a wonderful well-known device for moving smoothly through harmonic changes. Once I discovered that and became fluent with those scales and how to use them, that became sort of perhaps something that people heard in my playing that I used. I’m always searching for other ways to sort of work through the changes and tie the changes together harmonically speaking. I dare say that now I’ve moved on from those things that I was doing, you know, basically in the 80s and there are different things happening in my playing now. But basically, you’re right, yeah, there’s a sort of a way that I conceive playing through the changes and I try to play through them as opposed to negotiating each sort of key center. I’ve sort of developed a way of doing it. Maybe it's a little unconventional but it works for me. Maybe it’s not unconventional. Maybe anybody would strike upon it eventually.
SM: Is there a way that you approach standard tunes versus original compositions?
RM: I’ll try to play the tune. If the original is like a standard type of a thing, then I’ll probably approach it like a standard. If it’s a different kind of a tune...if it’s like say for instance, a more straight-eighth minor key which might enable me to imagine differently on the tune, then I’ll probably approach that differently. Maybe even you know get in to some pentatonic substitutions and kind of take it out a little bit and play around with it a different way. It depends on the tune more than if it’s an original or not.
SM: I had a hard time finding things about your life and your music and recordings after right around 2000 to now. Is there anything in that time period that I should check out or listen to from 2000 to about 2010 when you stopped playing with The Tonight Show Band?
RM: I went through some issues. I had some troubles with my teeth. I sort of backed off of performing in public until I could get that together. But I’ll be doing more things now. I’ve done three or four things in the past year and a half, so I’m sorta back around now. Life issues hit me. Back to back to back, some of them were a threat to my ability to play, some are just things that we go through in life sometimes.
SM: Is there anything else you would like to add?
RM: There’s a very moral aspect to it for me. If I don’t hear it, I’m liable not to play anything. I’m not one to just let my fingers fly. I wanna hear what I’m doing as best I can and if I get to a patch and I don’t hear anything I’m just gonna play anything. I have a moral responsibility to be as truthful as I can about what I’m playing, about what I’m expressing, and I think to just let my fingers fly just because I have the technique, is not satisfying to me or emotionally satisfying. To try to say something in the music is exactly that. I don’t let the chord changes intimidate me or the tempo intimidate me. I don’t have to play every change on the page, it’s much more important for me to make a concise statement, to create some kind of an arc. To start somewhere with a thread and take it somewhere rather than just cover all the changes on the paper. I think the ability for me to be restrained in the way that I express what I’m playing is one of the things that perhaps is recognizable about me. I’m not gonna rush through anything. I’m gonna take my time. I’m gonna try to make a statement. Some of my most favorite players like Bill Evans; I love that guy, just so sympathetic. All the other stuff: the scales, and the licks and all that stuff is secondary if anywhere. It’s more important for me to make a concise, sincere statement.