Interview with Pete Malinverni

(Condensed from the All About Jazz Interview April 2003 by Allen J. Huotari)

To most jazz fans, the intimate connection between music and spirituality is simply assumed.

The aspiration of many jazz musicians to place both themselves and their listeners in direct connection with the divine has been well documented over the years, perhaps most notably with John Coltrane whose music was both unabashed praise and ecstatic thanksgiving to a God of grace and love.

Furthermore, many musicians express the feeling, if not outright belief, that they are merely receivers, or antennae, resonating to a voice that originates from something deep yet residing outside of and beyond themselves. Pianist Pete Malinverni is certainly a musician who feels that inspiration flows through him as opposed to from him.

ALL ABOUT JAZZ: Would you please tell the AAJ readers about where you were born, raised, and what your earliest musical memories are?

PETE MALINVERNI: I was born in Niagara Falls, NY. At age 7 we moved to a small town near there called Lewiston, but for all intents and purposes I was raised in the Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Western New York region. It's a region which, at the time, was defined by the economic boom provided by the local industries, most of which had to do with the processing of chemicals in all the plants who located there for the cheap hydroelectric power made available by proximity to Niagara Falls. While my Dad and the fathers of most of my friends were employed in these plants, music was valued in the Italian-American heart, so my sister, April, and I were given piano lessons. I was six when I started, with a wonderful and tough teacher named Laura Copia. She's legendary up there, for her excellence in teaching and her passionate and big-hearted dedication to passing on what she knows. I studied classical piano with her until I was eighteen and left for music school. Of course my earliest musical memories revolve mostly around those lessons, but I also remember hearing my Mom sing as soloist in our church choir. It was a Pentecostal church, so I saw early on the easy association of music with the passions of people.

AAJ: What led you to choose piano as instrument of choice?

PM: There was gentleman in our church, Anthony DiGregorio, who led the church in singing every Sunday. Mr. DiGregorio had a friend who was looking to place his grand piano in a good home because he was moving to an apartment the size of which wouldn't accommodate a piano. The match was made, and it changed my life. People don't realize sometimes how large an effect even the seemingly smallest kindnesses can have. Anyway, lessons began right away.

AAJ: How would you describe your musical education? Formal? Informal? Both? Please elaborate.

PM: Certainly my lessons with Miss Copia were formal. We had a lesson each week, rain, shine or snow (a consideration up there in the snow belt). The work was very much European Classical in direction, and Miss Copia also gave me my early theory lessons.

I had a wonderful teacher in high school named Douglas Monroe who also gave me theory lessons, as well as taught me about the beauty of choral music. He was another very strict and passionate musician. As I look back now I see that it's always the teacher who cares enough to be tough who one remembers as having been the most effectual.

From high school I went on to the Crane School of Music in upstate New York. It was there I first heard jazz music, at that time sort of an outlaw form as far as the school was concerned. So my real education in jazz began, on the bandstand with my peers.

AAJ: Was there any watershed moment where you decided (or discovered) that you simply had to become a musician? Please elaborate.

PM: I mentioned Douglas Monroe earlier. During my senior year in high school the director of the concert wind ensemble was interested in performing Gershwin's “Rhapsody in Blue,” and had plans to hire a soloist. Some of the musicians in that group, like clarinetist Laura Ardan and saxophonist Pat Perez, have gone on to great careers in music, so it was a serious ensemble. Mr. Monroe suggested that I be given the chance as piano soloist, and I took it, with both hands. I suddenly stopped spending all my time down at the gym and began stealing moments during the school day to practice the “Rhapsody.” I was determined to learn and memorize it in time for the concert in April, and I did. I still remember the feeling of that accomplishment and of having the whole ensemble with me. I said, “This is for me.”

AAJ: When did your first exposure to jazz occur? What was your reaction?

PM: At the Crane School I was walking down the hall one day and heard music coming from a practice room. I opened the door—onto what turned out to be the rest of my life—and heard a quintet playing a form of music which was strong yet elegant, intricate yet ebullient, and I had to learn about it. It was, of course, jazz music. I'd had a lot of fun playing in a funk/rock band in high school with my cousin, a wonderfully lyrical guitarist named Paul Chiodo. We wanted to play music that felt that way, but we didn't know where to look, for vocabulary or colleagues. I knew I'd found it in jazz music.

AAJ: Who or what are your most profound sources for influence and inspiration? (this can include non-musical items) Why or how do these influence and inspire you?

PM: As for music, the influences have been as profound as they have been many, running the gamut between players and composers, in many musical forms. Many of my teachers have inspired me, from those I've mentioned to Elena Belli, an amazing classical piano teacher in NYC and Anthony Newman, the famed composer and keyboardist with whom I studied piano and counterpoint while taking my Masters in Music from the Purchase Conservatory of Music. Of course, my musician colleagues continue to inspire me. The collaborative elements of jazz music require us to be open to each other in the give and take of improvisation. There is no substitute.

My greatest inspiration, though, is my family. My parents and sister have always been supportive of me, for which I'm grateful. And my son, Peter Luca, and stepson and daughter, Guss and Hayes, are a constant reminder of the importance of one's legacy—every moment on the bandstand and in the recording studio is important and is to be cherished. And my wife, Jody Sandhaus is a source of great strength. She is a musician too, a singer, so she understands the life and business of making music. As a collaborator she's also an inspiration, as can be heard on her own recordings.

AAJ: Since 1993 you've served as church musician at the Devoe Street Baptist Church in Brooklyn, NY. How has this affected the way you play and compose?

PM: My stay as Minister of Music at Devoe Street has profoundly affected me in many ways, musical and otherwise. The pastor, Reverend Frederick C. Ennette, Sr., is a dear friend of long standing. When he got the church he asked me to come and help out initially while the church searched for a steady musician. It was after several weeks that it struck me that this was no longer a favor for a friend, but had become something I was looking forward to each week. It was then that the church offered me the position, and I was honored to do it. I play for all the congregational singing as well as direct the choir. Some of what we do on any given Sunday is music from current modern gospel artists and some is from the book of the Spirituals. I arrange everything for the voices I have. It's a small choir, between eight and twelve voices, but they are strong, dedicated beautiful singers. In recent years I've begun writing suites for gospel choir and jazz quartet, setting biblical text, mostly from the Psalms of David, to my own original music. We've been doing a new suite every year around Mother's Day, and this year is no exception. Last year we were joined by members from the combined choirs of the Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant, bringing the number of voices to around 75. That was an experience I'll not soon forget. By now there's a lot of music, and my larger goal is to get this music recorded. Our yearly concerts usually also feature solo performance by the wonderful singer, Yvette Glover.

As I said, I've been affected greatly by my work at Devoe, spiritually as well as in my personal relationship with music itself. I view my role as musician much more as that of a vessel now, believing that my job is to prepare myself as an instrument, ready to deliver to the audience whatever music as may come to me. I like to say that music is the voice of God. This attitude carries over to the bandstand and the recording studio as well. To feel as though I am not ultimately responsible for the inspiration of the music allows me to relax and let the music flow. This removes much of the anxiety associated with performance, by the way. Besides my wife Jody who is one of my soloists, our seven-year-old son, Peter Luca, is there every Sunday too, and this is something which will have a warm and lasting effect on his life.

AAJ: "Little David" is inspired by the Biblical account of David and Goliath. Of course, David eventually became a great king and also authored most of the Psalms, many of which you are using in your gospel suites. Do you find the character of David to be motivational for you? If so, could you please elaborate?

PM: I think the story of David and Goliath is meant to be inspirational to us all. The notion of the little guy armed only with his faith prevailing in the face of such long odds informs much of our culture. But I think it's the beginning of the story which is most important—the fact that David was willing to try is the beautiful part for me. I almost think it would have been better for us not to know how that battle turned out, only knowing of his resolute courage without the certainty of reward. After all that's what really matters. I don't presume to put any of my life into the category of “me against the world,” but one can surely take comfort knowing that, in the end, acting on one's ideals and convictions is ultimately the only choice. As for David's life as a musician, it is certainly inspirational. He showed the same courage in his musical expression of human emotion that he showed on the battlefield. The jazz musician can take David's unabashed humanity as manifested in music as a good model, I think.

AAJ: What analogies or parallels (if any) do you see/hear between Psalms, traditional gospel hymns, and standards?

PM: As composed by David, the Psalms were the hymn book of Israel. Many are addressed to the chief musician, and many are songs dedicated to one personage or another. So, even in their many English translations, the Psalms are a naturally musical group of works, and lend themselves to musical setting. African-American spirituals grew out of the same dynamic, that of the suffering and even joy of an oppressed people finding voice in music. In fact the writers of many spirituals used what is known as Old Testament biblical personages as direct allegory for their own plight as those taken forcibly from their home. The spirituals remain viable today, both for their intrinsic melodic beauty as well as for their addressing of certain universal human conditions—those of sadness as well as joy in the face of suffering. Traditional gospel hymns take their texts from more New Testament biblical themes, although they can retain some of the melodic flavor of the spirituals. Modern gospel music takes many of the same themes and uses update harmonies and rhythms. I like to play spirituals in a jazz context, because the large price of their birth calls for the kind of honest interpretation which is the hallmark of all good art. Also, the melodies are so beautiful as to encourage melodic improvisation of a higher sort. Those logical, beautifully simple diatonic melodies inspired many early white, American-born writers as well, most notably Stephen Foster. I hear his work echoed in the work of later melodicists such as Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers and Hoagy Carmichael. Those composers began to dress the melodies in rich harmonies, often to great effect.

AAJ: This past week found you running through your new suite for gospel choir and jazz quartet entitled, “Sing a New Song.” Without giving away too many secrets or surprises, could you please elaborate on what the audience will be hearing?

PM: As I said, the Psalms were originally set to music, so what I do is try to find passages which are inspirational as to the words and which lend themselves to music I can conceive. After I come up with a melody I set vocal harmonies, tempo and time feels, and put the whole together with the accompaniment of a jazz quartet, which then develops the themes in sections of improvisation. There is also a narration which bridges the various selections, each of which comes from verses of the Psalms. The result is a suite which runs roughly 45 minutes. This year, as in past years, the concert will also include a solo performance by the wonderful singer Yvette Glover. I'll play the piano and conduct. The quartet will be rounded out by some wonderfully versatile musicians, Steve Slagle, saxophones and flute, Pat O'Leary, bass, and Dwayne “Cook” Broadnax at the drums. I've been doing this for a few years now, and the title of this year's suite, “Sing a New Song,” is drawn from Psalms 96 and 98. It's great fun for me to find a way to join together two of the musical disciplines in which I work, between which there isn't really much of a boundary anyway. Much of what made jazz an enduring art form came from church music in the first place, so I don't see this as much of a stretch.

AAJ: Do you have plans to adapt or use any other Biblical texts as musical springboards? If so, which are you considering and why?

PM: As mentioned earlier, the suites I write are from the Psalms. I've also been working on something based on parts of the book of Isaiah (that's the book from which Handel took his text for “The Messiah”), and we'll see what else happens. For my trio performances and recordings I'll continue to set spirituals and hymns in a jazz context, and I always enjoy playing some of the choral things in the smaller, more intimate trio manner.

AAJ: What musicians would you most like to work with that you have never worked with before? Why?

PM: That's a difficult question. I've already been blessed to play with many great masters whose music I first got to know on recordings with piano idols of mine. For example, I played for several years with Vernel Fournier, whom I of course heard with the magnificent trio of Ahmad Jamal; I recently had the opportunity to play with Chuck Israels whose recordings with Bill Evans continue to inspire me; I got to play with Larry Gales once at the great piano room, Bradley's, having heard him with Monk, and I played once, also at Bradley's, with Billy Higgins, whose work with many great pianists, including Chris Anderson and Cedar Walton, was always uplifting. And these days I play with Leroy Williams, who played with Monk and has for years played with Barry Harris. It has been a thrill to play with these great musicians along with scores of others whom I have admired. And the beautiful thing is that now, as a teacher, I'm meeting musicians every day who obviously will have much to say before they're through. I look forward to playing with them. I guess I repeat myself, but I really believe it's the message, not the messenger. All the musicians I've mentioned are wonderful vessels, purely and truthfully delivering the music. As such, I can only make myself available and await the moment—and the phone call.

AAJ: What's the funniest or most embarrassing thing that's happened to you while performing or recording?

PM: I remember playing at a club downtown one time with the great Mel Lewis at the drums, along with tenor saxophonist Ralph Lalama, and Pat O'Leary at the bass. We were cooking, I mean really burning. The tune was “After You've Gone,” and I was taking a solo when everything just seemed to be hitting right, on all cylinders, if you will. Of course, if it's really right, it means you're taking risks, and suddenly I guess I got too far out on the limb, dropped a beat or something, and my solo just collapsed. I mean it was a conflagration, out of nowhere. The gig was recorded from the bandstand, and you can hear Ralph asking me what on earth (the question was actually put more colorfully than that) had happened. I love to listen to it—it's just the funniest thing—from the highest of the high to suddenly falling through space.

AAJ: What is the most meaningful or memorable compliment you've ever received?

PM: Two things come to mind: Once I was told that Barry Harris said, “Malinverni sure is funky.” From Barry Harris, that's a real compliment. Another time, Reverend Dr. Gardner C. Taylor, who has been called the Dean of American preachers, said to me during a guest sermon at Devoe Street, “If ever I get a tent, you're coming with me.” That was an allusion to the old tent revival meetings of an earlier day. Here was this magnificent, elegant and wise man, who by saying that made me feel as though I had been used that day in the right way.


Pete has a new CD!  "Joyful!" is the CD and companion DVD of a live concert recording of Pete Malinverni's music for Gospel Choir and Jazz Ensemble. The music is Pete's suite for Gospel Choir and Jazz Ensemble based on the Psalms Of David. It features the Devoe Street Baptist Church Choir of Brooklyn, NY and a host of great singers and players, including Yvette Glover, Jody Sandhaus, Afua Monk-Addo, Steve Wilson, Joe Magnarelli, Todd Coolman and many others. .  samples here!


The complete All About Jazz interview conducted by Allen J. Huotari can be found here: