Dave Pietro

World Music Foundation Podcast | Season 1, Episode 1

“You can’t play that which you haven’t lived”

About this Episode

Dave Pietro’s curiosity and workmanship have been the foundation of his decade’s long career as an internationally touring Jazz musician. He explains the value of truly listening— even if what you’re hearing confuses or frightens you at first. We touch on his gigging history starting in New York, his new album New Road: Iowa Memoirs, and how immersing oneself in a culture can fundamentally change your understanding of pretty much everything.

Dave Pietro: … and this mariachi band came in, and this woman was singing, and it was music of such exquisite beauty. And in that moment, I think, when you experience that, you also experience the beauty in the other people. You know what I mean, you can hear, and it changes you, it changes you, it really changes you.

(Intro Music Plays)

John Gardner: Hello, hello, thank you so much for tuning in. This is the World Music Foundation Podcast. I’m your host, John Gardner, and today we speak with New York jazz scene mainstay: Dave Pietro.

John Gardner: Now to get to know Dave Pietro is to get to know jazz itself. He’s a jazz saxophonist; he’s currently a member of the multi-Grammy Award winning Maria Schneider Orchestra. He also tours and performs with the Gil Evan’s Project: Darcy James Argues Secret Society for over two decades. He was the lead alto sax in Toshiko Akiyoshi’s Jazz Orchestra. He’s toured and recorded with amazing acts Woody Herman, Lionel Hampton, Maynard Ferguson, Sandip Burman, the Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Pete McGuinness. He’s shared the stage and performed with legendary artists like David Bowie, Paul Anka, Blood Sweat and Tears, Ray Charles, Rosemary Clooney, Harry Connick Jr., Chaka Khan. Today we’re going to hear a little bit of insight into what makes somebody like Dave Pietro, and I’m going to give a hint: it’s probably not from remaining completely insular and listening only to the type of music he’s performing. Let’s get into the interview. Here’s Dave Pietro.

John Gardner: We thank you so much, Dave, for being here with us.

Dave Pietro: Happy to be here.

John Gardner: So, we have audience from all over the world. We have people listening from India, Singapore. Of course, a lot of people from the U.S. So, people will know you; some people, this will be new for them. Give us kind of an overview. Who’s Dave Pietro?

Dave Pietro: Well, I grew up in Boston, and I went to get my undergraduate degree at the University of North Texas, where I studied music education. Got a music education degree but played on all the jazz bands there – a saxophonist. I also played flute, and clarinet, a lot of woodwinds. I moved to New York in 1987, October 9th, 1987, to be exact, and I have been there for thirty years in the New York scene. Playing with a number of bands. I went out with the Woody Herman band for years, Maynard Ferguson, Lionel Hampton, played the Rainbow Room – did six nights a week there for a number of years. I played wedding bands out in Long Island doing, first, I did a lot of Italian wedding bands and then Jewish wedding bands, and that. Did a lot of Broadway shows. I played over forty different Broadway shows. I backed up musicians such as Liza Minnelli and Harry Connick Jr., and people like that. And then my first foray into world music, shall we say, it was in the late nineties when I got a call from my friend Jeff Coffin, who was invited to go to India. This great tablist Sandip Burman, and he couldn’t go. He was with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones at the time, which is where he met Sandip. So, Sandip invited me to go, and that was my foray into Indian music.

John Gardner: That’s quite an immersion.

Dave Pietro:  … and right around the same time the same year, I also went to Brazil for the first time, and started really getting into Brazilian music. And then I joined the bands of Maria Schneider, Grammy Award winning composer, who I still play with, and Darcy James Argues, Grammy nominated composer, and that’s, the group I played with last night at the Chicago Jazz Festival. And about eight years ago, I started teaching full-time.  I’m a full-time professor of Jazz Studies at New York University. So that’s a quick synopsis of the last forty years.

John Gardner:  There’s a lot in there, and the common theme, of course, through all of it is music. This thing called the saxophone has seemed to have taken you quite a lot of places. Through all those, all those different gigs – from Broadway, to the wedding bands, to India, Brazil – was this all on saxophone? Was that your first instrument?

Dave Pietro: Yeah, sax was my first instrument, I started playing 1974, ten years old.

John Gardner: How did that happen?

Dave Pietro: You know, it was a typical thing where the music teacher came to the fourth graders and said you’re going to be taking — you can take an instrument next year and they had all these demonstrations. And, I remember going home and I had checked off saxophone, and I remember my mother saying, “Oh my god, David, you picked the most expensive one.” And I remember at the time, 1974, it was $375.

John Gardner: Expensive tastes.

Dave Pietro: You know, the dollar was different back then. I was telling a joke with my folks now, like it ended up not being a bad investment.

John Gardner: Yeah, I think it paid off alright. And was it other students that performed for you? I know sometimes the older students perform.

Dave Pietro: Yeah, it was like the high school students.

John Gardner: So, somewhere out there, there’s some high school kid who – statistically, he probably dropped out of the instrument himself; he didn’t go very far. But he could have been the one that inspired Dave Pietro. That’s amazing; I love it.

Dave Pietro: I think that’s kind of – we really don’t have any idea. Like sometimes the slightest thing we might do for somebody can be a major inspirational point for them. I mean, that’s why we have to keep that in mind every time we interact with people that – especially when you’re older dealing with younger people – that the interaction that you have with him can be super impactful to them. And I think that’s something important to keep in mind.

John Gardner: That’s great. That is a huge thing to remember, you know. So musically are there other situations there where, maybe now you’re playing sax, you’re practicing – hopefully you’re practicing, you clearly you have.

Dave Pietro: Yeah.

John Gardner: So you’re going through and you’re learning sax, were getting excited about it. I’m guessing you were diving specifically into saxophone?

Dave Pietro: What happened was I start on the alto saxophone, but then in in high school we were playing some big band arrangements that required some flute. Well, doubling, because the fingerings of wood wind instruments are a lot the same. So, it’s not uncommon for saxophonist to also play flute and also play clarinet because there was a lot of similarities between the instruments.

John Gardner: I see.

Dave Pietro: I love playing the flute. I love playing the clarinet, so I continued with that. When I went into college, I actually studied classical flute and classical clarinet. And then I just continued with that. And when I did the Jewish bands out on Long Island, I did a lot of clarinet because a lot of the Jewish music is Klezmer music has a lot of clarinet.

John Gardner: It fits in with the music.  That’s good to have options there.

Dave Pietro: And when I did the Indian music, I played mostly soprano saxophone. Because that has more like a shiny kind of sound, more nasal sound, more like the typical Indian sound. And Brazilian music I play a lot of flute, cassata flute. So, you know, depending on what style of music I’m playing…

John Gardner: Great. And what about musically, what are your influences? Like what kind of albums do you remember standing out as saying oh you can add this you can add this into your music. Or maybe your approach to instruments or music itself.

Dave Pietro: Well, you know my first memory I have of being turned on to some music I hadn’t heard before, was my junior high band director. I had only been playing the sax for one year, and I remember it was a cassette tape. He played me Charlie Parker. And then I was like, I’ve never heard… I mean, my mother, my parents listen to… they belong to the easy listening club, okay, of Colombia. So, they used to listen to The Carpenters and that kind of stuff, and so I’ve never really heard bebop before. So, I listened, and my eyes got big, and he popped the cassette out and gave it to me.  He said, “Okay I want you to go check this guy out, ok?”

John Gardner: Great.

Dave Pietro: And so, from that point on, it’s always been just… I mean, I remember in high school I used to go to the library when I took this music history class, and I’d hear the names of Bela Bartok and Igor Stravinsky. And so, I went to the library and just bought records – not bought, I mean borrowed – by these composers. And I remember just listening to them with the attitude of like I’m just standing under a shower and just letting the water go over me without judgment. You know what I mean? I think that’s important is that we’re so quick to judge stuff. And we don’t just experience things just to experience them. And so there was some music I wasn’t prepared to listen to. I remember the Bartok violin concerto was very atonal, and it really scared me. Sounding like, you know, Psycho like the movie Psycho, and it scared me.

But I think that’s an important thing. And so, when I went to Brazil for the first time, there were a couple of Brazilian musicians, friends of mine, we were in a record store and I said to them, “I want you guys each to pick me out ten of your favorite CD’s.”

John Gardner: Wow, that’s great.

Dave Pietro: So, they each came to me with ten. Like, you know, when you have your favorite cd, like, “Oh man, I’m giving you my life!”, dramatically.

John Gardner: Like, “You have to!”

Dave Pietro: And so, I took twenty CD’s back of artists I had never heard of, like Hermeto Pascoal, people like that. And when I went to India, same thing I asked Sandip. I said, “Who should I check out?” Nikhil Banerjee, other musicians like that, Bhimsen Joshi, the singer; I mean, people I’ve never heard of it. And so I now I have this collection of recordings that we’re treasures of people that I had asked.

John Gardner: That’s great.

Dave Pietro: And I just dived in, you know, and just, I think what’s really important to do it without judgment. It’s like it’s like the Facebook thing, we immediately have to go thumbs up, thumbs down. But can we just experience something just to experience it and not come to a judgment whether you like it or not? Just check it out.

John Gardner: That’s great. So, all the way from back, when you’re borrowing records or tapes from the library, you’re letting it wash over you. You still take the same approach?

Dave Pietro: Yes, I think it’s important. I mean, after a period of time, you come to a judgment about well, I prefer this or not. But it’s like trying a new dish. It’s like, just eat the food, see how you feel and just experience it. And then alright, maybe after you’ve had that dish four, five, six, seven times, then you start to think, okay, it’s a little too spicy for me or, and I don’t care for this or that. But first time just take it in, just experience it.

John Gardner: It’s much different than you hear so many people say, “Oh, I don’t like that”. But they’ve never had it or they’ve had it one time it could have been the way somebody prepared it.

Dave Pietro: Yes, because your first impression is not always as accurate. And you come – we all bring our predisposed attitudes to things, too. So, “I’m not going to like this” even before you try. Or, “I know I’m not going to like this” Well then, I tell my… you put some music on, “I know I’m not going to like this.” How do you know? How can you even say that before you experience it? It’s like meeting someone, saying, “I know I’m not going to like this person”.

John Gardner: And we’re taught – we take the time to teach maybe our kids or students to say, hey, don’t make immediate assumptions about people. But I don’t think there’s enough people like you vocalizing saying, hey, don’t make those immediate assumptions about the music; treat it the same way.

Dave Pietro: Yeah, well, this is something I guess I always had that, I mean the curiosity. I think it’s important to approach anything in life, whether it’s a situation, whether it’s people, whether it’s a new experience, new music, food, whatever, there’s, something you can learn from it. I’ve always had that attitude. Maybe you don’t know what it is at first, you might not know what you learned from this person until twenty years later.

John Gardner: Very true.

Dave Pietro: Or from a recording like I mean, I didn’t know why I was drawn to Indian music. I didn’t know I was drawn to Brazilian music. But now, after doing, being involved with that music twenty years, I can see the commonalities between them. I can see, oh, now I know why I was drawn to those.

John Gardner: What are some of those commonalities?

Dave Pietro: I’ve always been a melodic…I’ve always been drawn to melody. And some people who are drawn more to, say atonal music or sounds or this kind of thing. I’ve always been drawn to melody. I love opera. I love the American Songbook. And Indian music, particularly Hindustani music, has beautiful melodic quality to it. As does Brazilian music. But what gets me is the combination of beautiful melody with sophisticated rhythms, because underneath is all of this complexity that you don’t notice at first, but you feel it. So Indian music has that, has this beautiful melodic thing with this rhythmic complexity underneath. So does Brazilian music, and it took me a while to kind of come out from the analytical standpoint to understand what is it that draws me to this.

John Gardner: That makes a lot of sense.

Dave Pietro: So, like I tell people now, my music is “BrazIndian” influence.

John Gardner: Very nice. So, here’s taken it a step deeper and you can agree with us, you can throw it out, you can say “no it really doesn’t go that far”, but the more you listen to the music the more you understood and appreciated it. Whether or not you go home and play it on your record player. People’s tastes are different, but you understood more, and you started to draw these connections. Do you feel like the more you learn about the music, or as you experience the music, that it had any influence on the way you see the people themselves? The culture themselves? The countries themselves? Does it reach that far? Does it stop with the music?

Dave Pietro: I don’t know, it’s all the same. I mean for me, there’s no distinction between music and in life. You know, especially as a jazz musician, you can’t play that which you haven’t lived, you know. I mean the blues has always been a such an important part of jazz and… only, what is the blues? The blues is playing the totality of human experience, which has a beauty to it has suffering in it. It has grit, it has all of this. You know, of what it is to be alive. It has love. It has passion. It has all of these. It has sadness. I thought actually, I’ve always been drawn to music. This is what I love about Jewish music, is that you hear these really beautiful melodies, but they’re in minor, you know. And there’s something in that that really gets me. It’s like there’s a beauty in the sadness, a beauty in the melancholy. Because I mean, a lot of life is that yeah, you know. I mean, we’re not always going around…  I mean, we’re told… I mean, look on Facebook, you think everyone’s happy all the time, but you know that’s not true.

A lot of life is just… is sort of this… as the Brazilians say, “saudade”. It’s a great word and it means longing. You long for this, you want for that. But I think if you can sort of… if we can get to the point where we can appreciate the beauty of that. Like, if you’re feeling lonely, okay? I mean, there’s a beauty in that, in that you’re alive. You’re feeling something, you know, this is what it is to be alive. If you were dead, you wouldn’t be feeling lonely. Okay, so you’re alive and you’re longing for something and there’s a beauty in that, I think. If you can… not that you have to like it, but if you can appreciate the beauty of it, then I think you find more peace.

One thing I was saying I like about Jewish music is a lot of the melodies have this beautiful beauty in them, and that is really amazing melody, and yet has the… And Brazilian music too has this “saudade”. And you have that in Indian music too, of this, like some of the intervals have this really sort of dark pull down. But I don’t know, for me, music that has a totality of the sophistication of the beauty and it also comes together is what really draws me.

John Gardner: That’s great. You’ve mentioned Jewish music a few times. I’m going to virtually do what you’ve done, to musicians that you respected, and you’ve asked them to share some albums. Do you have off the top of your head – we can add them in the show notes later – just a handful of albums or musicians to listen to?

Dave Pietro: Well, it’s just there aren’t any specific musicians I’ve listened to in Jewish music because I haven’t gotten into like the ethnomusicology as much on that as I have Brazilian or Indian music. But, you know, checking out klezmer. It’s an amazing musical form that is… it’s virtuosic, too. That’s the other thing is that there’s, so many virtuosic… like Bulgarian wedding music. There, you see people dancing and, you know, most music is in three-four, four-four, two-four. You see people dancing in seven. Kids doing it; they just grow up with this sophisticated… And there’s a great Bulgarian saxophonist named Yuri Yunakov, who is sort of the king of Bulgarian wedding music. He actually lives in New Jersey now, but really, he’s, someone worth checking out.

I mean, I remember in the early nineties listening to the Bulgarian Women’s Choir. That music is unbelievable. A lot of it, you know, you can find on YouTube.  

John Gardner: Yeah, I’ll share some links.

Dave Pietro: A lot of it is like seconds, like really close intervals with a low…

John Gardner: Oh, I didn’t know that.

Dave Pietro: Yeah, it’s amazing music. Bulgarian Women’s Choir, you have to… that changed my life. I was in the early nineties and started getting into it.

John Gardner: Really?

Dave Pietro: Because I kind of… they became kind of… they got nominated for a Grammy around that time… became world-renowned.

John Gardner: It’s hard to remember these details, but any recollection on how you came across the Bulgarian Women’s Choir?

Dave Pietro: Yeah, that one, I think my friend Jeff Coffin might have told me. I’m not sure. Somebody hit me to them.

John Gardner: And that’s all it took, and now it’s a party.

Dave Pietro: Oh, it might have been Steve, my friend Steve Armour, one of my musician friends said, “you got to check this group out”. And I did, and it just rocked my world

John Gardner: That’s great, and we’re saying the same thing to our listeners. You got to check this out. And we will put links in the show notes.

Dave Pietro: And I can get you, you know, in the Jewish… I have some more specific recordings in my iTunes that I can send you links to.

John Gardner: Yeah, if you don’t mind. For those who don’t have the friends, we want to be the ones to pass on these links and ways to find musicians.

Dave Pietro: I’ll cook up a list, actually, with a bunch of world music stuff and send it to you.

John Gardner: Awesome. Now, the way we use the term “world music” with World Music Foundation, this podcast, we see it as anything that’s from the point of view of the listener, right? So, if you as a listener can identify it as being from another part of the world that you’re not, to us that’s world music. So, there may very well be listeners here that don’t have much frame of reference, maybe never seen a saxophone in person. There’s probably a lot of listeners. They are a blank slate, like some of our listeners don’t know the kora or djembe. How would you, to someone who has no frame of reference for the saxophone, how would you describe the saxophone?

Dave Pietro: How would I describe the saxophone? In terms of sound?

John Gardner: I’ve never seen a saxophone, held it, I don’t know how it’s used.

Dave Pietro: Interesting. I’ve never been asked that.

John Gardner: I’m going to guess that.

Dave Pietro: Well, it’s a brass instrument. I mean, the saxophone is a hybrid instrument because it’s basically a brass instrument made from brass. But it has a woodwind mouthpiece. It has a… you play a reed, a bamboo reed. So it’s similar to the clarinet in that it has a mouthpiece and a bamboo reed, but it’s similar to the trumpet trombone in that it’s made of brass. It is, it’s just a hybrid instrument that was invented in 1846 by Adolf Sacks. And yeah, that’s where the saxophone comes from. He was Belgian, a Belgian music maker. And, well, it has a curve, it goes down and then curves back up with the part we call the bell, so it looks like, if you would put your arm down and then raise your fist up like you’re showing off your bicep muscle, it’s kind of that shape.

John Gardner: There you go.

Dave Pietro: And, it has… because it’s a bamboo reed, it has a reedy quality, like a clarinet, but it also has a fullness that you would get from a trumpet or trombone, depending. Because they’re…  saxophones are made in all different keys. So, they’re big saxophones, small saxophones. The smallest saxophone is probably, I don’t know, one foot from the bottom to the top. And the largest one is probably seven feet.

John Gardner: Okay, so if we say sax that’s a generality.

Dave Pietro: Because there are many, many, many different… well, they all basically look the same. They’re just different sizes. So, it’s like a car. It is the same car. But you have all the way from the Match Box all the way to a regular sized car in all sizes. And yeah, saxophone really took off in the 1920’s. That’s when maur were sold per capita than at any other time in history. And it was really popular in the big bands in the 1930’s and 40’s. And that was really when it took hold in American culture.

John Gardner: Okay, great. Thank you. New information for a lot of them. Obviously, I’m fairly familiar with sax, but hearing it from that perspective really was eye opening for me. So, thanks for that. You mentioned big bands. You’ve played with some of the top big bands in the world. You continue to. Do you feel in that style of music, that setting itself, does that bring inherently something different to the compositions to you’re playing versus playing in trios?

Dave Pietro: I mean, there are things, yes, it’s very different. Obviously the smaller the group, the more freedom you have within the group to do things, which is nice, but you’re also limited in terms of the… how should I say this, sound? I mean, the number of sounds that are available as a group. The larger the group, the more sounds you could get, combinations of instruments are these… you have a much larger palate, but you have more limited individuality. So this might be a good place to talk about one thing that that’s important to me is, you know is, when people talk about music and the schools, and they say, “well, we don’t need music”. Because the attitude is music is entertainment and that’s a frivolous thing. I would… my response is music, a band, a large ensemble is social psychology. It’s science and it’s necessary because as a member of a larger ensemble… in a big band, for those people don’t know, we’re talking about, usually about 16-18 musicians. So, there’s five saxophones four trombones, four trumpets, piano, bass drum, sometimes guitar. So, it’s a larger ensemble, and all the tools you need to function well in good society, you need in a large ensemble. Which is: you need to know when it’s time to lead, you need to know when it’s time to follow, you need to know when it’s time to blend in and actually do the exact same, like, if you’re dancing with the exact same steps.  You need to listen all around the ensemble because at times you’re playing, like a saxophone player, I might have the same line as one of the trumpets, and we’re playing in unison together, so I have to listen back there, and then I might be playing something with the trombone on my right side, so I have to listen back there. And then sometimes I’m playing a rhythmic thing that I need to listen to the drummer. And so it’s like you have this radar that’s going around all the time listening different parts of the song, different parts of the ensemble. And for me, I mean that’s one of the joys of playing in large ensembles when it really comes together. It’s nothing that anyone could accomplish individually.

John Gardner: That’s great.

Dave Pietro: It’s teamwork, it’s like, you know, a team sports where no one could accomplish what they’re doing individually. You have… everyone has to be doing their job, and everyone has to be geared in and conscious of what their role is at any one time, and the roles change, depending what the music requires.

John Gardner: So, it was not just a clever name, Darcy James Argues, because it’s a…

Dave Pietro: It’s a secret society.

John Gardner: There’s a society there.

Dave Pietro: He called us co-conspirators.

John Gardner: Yeah, there you go. You’re all working together. So, the way – obviously played in so many different bands and settings – have you seen any difference in how the Brazilian musicians interact with each other in group settings?  Or Indian?

Dave Pietro: Well, this gets back to what we were talking about, some experiences I’ve had with playing different world music. I mean, the first thing I’ll say is, and this is true for anything: the more you learn, it’s ultimately about learning what you don’t know. The more you know… It’s true, the more you know, the more you understand how much you took

John Gardner: That’s a big thing.

Dave Pietro: I mean, I’ll be the first one to say I dabble in Brazilian music, and Indian music, and any other thing that I’ve studied. I have spent some serious time studying the music, playing the music. Well, in traveling to these places – which I think is really important – but it’s a flash in the pan. You know. And sometimes I feel guilty about that, like, if I was really… I should really just go all in. But then you know, that could be your pursuit for your whole life, and it is for some people. And I guess I’ve always been someone like, I like a little of this, a little of this. And that’s ok too, I think is long as you understand what you’re doing or not doing, and don’t pass it off as being that which it is not.

In other words, I mean just because you incorporate, a few quote-unquote Brazilian rhythms or Indian phrases, you know, that can be misused, so that it becomes a caricature, you know. It’s important to me to be sincere about doing something with the depth of understanding, and not misrepresenting it.

John Gardner: That’s great.

Dave Pietro: You know, because you could spend your whole life just doing Indian music or your whole life just doing Brazilian music, and still not well, understand it. So, the other part of it is it’s like music is a language like any other language. If you wanted to learn, you want to learn to speak French or speak Italian, you have to go to France, you have to go or come back. Or you have to go to Italy, and you have to speak with native speakers of the language for a period of time. And in doing that you not only… because the language is interspersed with culture.

John Gardner: It all ties together.

Dave Pietro: It all ties together. So you have to… because I mean so much of the accent of a language is influenced by the attitude of the culture. You know, it’s like Italian has this sort of la-dee-da, you know, everything is sort of dramatico. But that’s also part of the culture, you know. And, so, you notice as soon as I started talking about Italian I started moving my hands, you see this, you know. It’s kind of how things are.

And I’ve been to japan 26 times; more than any of the country. I’ve played in Toshiko Akiyoshi’s. I forgot to mention her band. I played lead alto with her big band for 20 years. And I’ve been to Japan 26 times. And I feel like I know Japanese culture a bit. And you begin to see that the energies that go into us being human beings are the same no matter where you are. They just manifest differently in different cultures. And I find that fascinating, like how did the same energies – we’re the same; there is no difference. But what is different is how those energies come up. So, in other words, how do Germans show their passion versus Italians or Japanese? Like, the Japanese are very measured on the outside, okay, but the passion comes out in other ways. You know, it’s only permitted to come out in certain places, in certain ways. So, I think for me, learning the music, a big part of it is going to the country, knowing the people.

And then, it’s like when I get in a cab now in New York, when people say, “I’m from India”, and I start talking about raag and taal and, you know, rice and dal and, you know. And there’s a connection there, you know. Like, I understand, you know. We talk with food; we talk about music. And there’s an immediate connection, like, “oh, it’s not other”.

John Gardner: Yeah.

Dave Pietro: It’s just different. There’s a big difference between that, between like, “oh, this is this is other” or “this is something that’s just different that I have a little bit of experience”. You know, it’s like the yin yang. In the drop of the… in the white is a drop of the black, and in the black is a drop of the white. And the significance of that is you cannot relate to that which is completely other.

John Gardner: Perfect.

Dave Pietro: So, what’s important is to understand just a little… all you need is a drop to at least have some basic understanding. That’s why, you know this program that you’re running here, I think, is so important because maybe the music is that little drop, you know, for young people. Like oh, they nose like sitar. What is the sitar? You know, what is a conga? You know? Or what is shakuhachi? Japanese flute, you know? And for them that’s the window. That’s the connection.

John Gardner: That’s huge.

Dave Pietro: You know.

John Gardner: You’re always having to fly out. I’m already getting bummed that you have to fly out, because I could just talk to you for three hours.

Dave Pietro: We’ve got a little more time.

John Gardner: I wanted to… You talk about visiting the people, and from experiencing that culture, you see the way they express themselves the way their energies come out. Your most recent album is the Iowa Memoirs – New Roads: Iowa Memoirs. That came from being immersed in the culture.

Dave Pietro: Yeah, Midwest culture, which I grew up in the east coast. So, give me the Midwest. Even within America, it’s a different…

John Gardner: Was it really that different? Was it a big difference to you to do? Did it…

Dave Pietro: Okay, here’s one… I’ll tell you one difference that – this is a little funny anecdote. But I’m in a car with a friend of mine from Missouri, and we’re on the passenger side and someone cut him off. Very rudely. Okay, so I was like, “man, honk your horn at this guy”. He’s like, “no, no, no, we don’t do that here”. I’m like “honk your horn!”. He’s like, no. But I mean, in New York you honk your horn.

John Gardner: Yeah, living in New York, you’re like, what in the world?

Dave Pietro: It’s like putting your shoes on in the morning.

John Gardner: Like, this is not my language.

Dave Pietro: So I leaned over and he… we almost drove off the road because he was like, “No! You can’t do that! You can’t!” To him, honking a horn was like, you know, going up to someone and saying some expletives right in their face. To us, honking the horn is like no big deal.

John Gardner: You were just educating him because he clearly needed some education.

Dave Pietro: I tell my mom, when I’m on the phone with her, it’s the soundtrack of New York: sirens and honking horns, you know. But little things like that. I mean, when I find… my fiancé and I were commenting on here in Chicago how people are so nice here too.  It’s a big city. And people are nice in New York, but in a different way. They’re much warmer here, and will talk to you, and help you, and this and that. So, you know, that’s part of the Midwest culture.

John Gardner: And did that find its way into your music?

Dave Pietro: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s the music I wrote was a little bit more pastoral than I might write as a New Yorker.

John Gardner: It sounded like it.

Dave Pietro: Yeah. It’s a little it’s a little more open. Just like this space here is. I mean, one of the tunes I wrote while driving in Western Iowa in the middle of February, just looking at the fields… just snow on them. And it was just mile after mile after mile. And you can’t write like a busy bebop tune or something… New York cab ride, you know, it sounds like a New York cab ride… when you’re trying to musically represent this expanse of space. You know, this sort of thing. So even within our country here we have, you know, cultures within cultures, and different energies and different ways, you know.

John Gardner: There are people all the time, of course, and I’m guilty of it myself too: I’ll say “Oh, Brazilian music, Indian music”. Well that’s like saying, “American music,” right?

Dave Pietro: Yes, it is. It’s true. Because, like within Brazilian music, there’s different regions where you have the Bossa Nova, which is more Rio de Janeiro. And then you have Baiao from Bahia. And in Bahia there’s a much more heavy African population. So, the music there is very different, and they even have different instruments like zabumba, which is this big drum, and the triangle are the typical instruments that they use in Baiao.

John Gardner: In the Northern part of Brazil?

Dave Pietro: In the northeast. Yeah so that’s a completely… and Brazil… that’s a completely separate region, musically. Just like in India, you have the Carnatic and Hindustani. There are different instruments, you know, you have mridangam versus tabla. And very different… I mean, commonalities, of course, but very different musical systems.

So, yeah, that’s another mistake we can make is to sort of lump it all, but of course, within that is the regions. You know, like we have bluegrass in the Appalachians, and we have the jazz from the northeast, and New Orleans jazz, which is a different type of jazz, and country western, and all kinds of different regional music.

John Gardner: Have you noticed that these differences… like Maria Schneider, she’s from the Midwest?

Dave Pietro: Yes. From Minnesota.

John Gardner: So, playing in her band versus Toshiko Akiyoshi, did they bring…

Dave Pietro: Very different.

John Gardner: Did they bring their culture to it? Whether it’s Midwest culture…?

Dave Pietro: No question. Yeah, well, you know, it’s interesting is Toshiko was sort of the first one… I mean, she’s 89 now; she’ll be 89 this summer. She was very influenced by Bud Powell. So, she was a Japanese musician who came to the States, very influenced by an American jazz pianist – a black American pianist.

John Gardner: Yeah, great.

Dave Pietro: This is the beauty of the twentieth century – the twenty first century. But then she had a conversation with Duke Ellington. And, Duke Ellington said, you know, you want to find your voice. I mean, okay, you’re playing like Bud Powell, and that’s great. It’s good to copy. It’s like the three stages of an artist: imitate, assimilate, innovate. So, she was imitating Bud Powell. But the next step is, who are you, you know, as a young Japanese composer and piano player. And so, she started to integrate all these Japanese influences into her music and that’s when she really found her voice. So, it was like bebop meshed with Japanese and forms. You know, I can relate to that because I grew up with music that I grew up with – Charlie Parker and all that. I kind of grew up with bebop. And my dad had a big swing collection. But then I found all this world music and that has sort of influenced this.

Well, so, you know, I think that that’s important is to explore your influences. But then at the same time, go within, and find what’s your voice. What do you have to add to that? Because that’s the only… I tell my students, that’s the only ingredient that you have to add to the mix, of what you’re going to do as an artist, is you. Because that’s the only ingredient… that’s the only ingredient that no one else has.

John Gardner: I like that.

Dave Pietro: Yeah, you know, what’s going to make your soup different from someone else’s soup? Well, I mean, if you have… you have access to the same influences, except one, which is your voice and that’s… So, it’s not like you’re going to reinvent music. You’re not going to reinvent whatever pursuit… But you are going to bring something personal to it that’s going to make it different because you’re different. There’s no one else like you.

John Gardner: Yeah, that makes sense.

Dave Pietro: So, yeah, that’s how… that’s how I look at it.

John Gardner: So, you mentioned in Bulgaria they’re dancing to seven-four…

Dave Pietro: And Greek music too. I used to live in a Greek area and they have this thing called the zeibekiko. It’s not an odd meter, but it’s a beautiful phrase. It’s in nine; most stuff isn’t. So, it’s (tapping rhythm). So, it has a little extra beat at the end, which is just kind of… everything just sort of lifts. And it’s that little thing. It’s Greek – called the zeibekiko. That’s the name of that beat pattern.

John Gardner: So, is it kind of like taal where they have names for the…

Dave Pietro: They do, I guess. You know, Greek is influenced by Middle Eastern. It’s kind of that same… you know, kind of branched out of that influence. Same with Bulgarian. That the Eastern European has that kind of Middle Eastern influences as the Indian music. The trade routes that happened thousands of years ago.

John Gardner: From Indian music, how does that influence your playing outside of Indian music? What were the things that stood out? The more you learn about the system.

Dave Pietro: Well from a sound standpoint, you know, as a bebop musician, as a jazz musician, I was used to playing a lot of notes. (singing). This kind of stuff. And then I started playing Indian music and it’s like (long monotone note) Right? And I remember, actually, when I went with Sandip for the first time. I mean, it was a 48-hour trip from New York to Calcutta. We stopped, I think, we stopped in Moscow, and stopped maybe in Mumbai, and then to Calcutta. And then we had a six-hour car ride to the village. And, so, we got there and, you know, it’s an indoor-outdoor house. And, as is the custom in India, his parents gave me their bed to stay in because I was the guest. You’re visiting deity kind of thing. And I just remember I was so exhausted because I didn’t sleep on the flight because Sandip was teaching me music by rote, you know, just like ta-tat-tat-tat, that way, repeating. So finally I laid down and then I had a dream I was in Africa. I remember, I was like hearing (tapping on microphone) drumming like that. And I opened my eyes, and the drumming didn’t stop, so I said, “okay it’s not a dream”. And I got up in this haze because I’d only been sleeping for a few hours and I was so tired, and Sandip was sitting up with a tabla in his lap and a towel over it. He was practicing; that’s what I’d been hearing. And, he’s like, “David, come.  We practice.” So, I was in this haze. I was like… the sun was just coming up, and I got my horn and I sat next to him and his mother got up, and she started cooking breakfast. And then we started doing like (singing) you know, and then we did that for five minutes. And then I changed to a different pattern and he goes, “David, what you doing?” I said, “I’m switching to a different pattern. He goes, “No, this is India. We do one thing, one hour. Go.”

And I say that… I recite the story because what I learned, was slowing time down and seeing all… doing one thing, but then experiencing all the details in it. It would be like putting something under a microscope. You would just look at something you say, “well, that’s just a dot of whatever”. But if you saw it under a microscope, you’d see this unbelievable detail that was there, that you didn’t see before. And it was kind of like that, just playing one thing for one hour. I started realizing my finger’s, not really moving well on that note or that note is a little out of tune, or I’m rushing that. And I started realizing this detail when I slowed things down and repeated them because, you know, in New York, in the States, it’s like this (snapping).

And then also just playing one note, I started really appreciating the slight change in tambor as it got brighter or darker, or louder or softer. That was one of the… that was one of the main things that I got that just blew my mind and opened my world. And the other one was looking at rhythm instead of just like one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, in a melodic way, like one-two, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two, one-two, one-two-three, one-two-three, where the rhythm became the melody. So, the melodic instrument, the saxophone, I would play the ostinato. In other words, I would take the role of the drum, and then the drums would take the melody. That to me was… I’ve never experienced that before.

And then also the third thing I guess would be, you know, there are scales or ragas that have combinations of notes that we don’t hear in this. So that really changed my playing, in that I started hearing these scales – well, we call them scales – a collection of notes, shall we say, in a different way. I started hearing the flat two or the flat six or these different combinations, and that just opened up my ears in terms of hearing a wider palette of sounds and possible collection of notes.

John Gardner: So, it sounds like very intense practice.

Dave Pietro: Yeah, yeah. And I still, I still, I still work on that. But when I listen now I can hear how that stuff is really influenced. You know, it’s worked its way in it’s great in subtle ways. That’s how I approach things.

John Gardner: Fantastic. Since we have, by my count, we have about five, six minutes. So, I have a question for you that, myself, as the founder, executive director of the World Music Foundation, that I’ve been wanting to crystallize and explain to people, but I’ve realized myself have taken this for granted. I don’t know if you’re able to answer to this, but I think we would both agree, it’s important that you hear, listen to, hopefully respect, you learn about music of other cultures. We agree on that. We take it for granted almost, that you should do that. Could you tell me, what’s the problem with not experiencing music of other cultures? Is there a problem? Are you losing something? What is you’re losing? Is there something tangible?

Dave Pietro: Yeah. I mean, I think you can, you can… I mean, they’re people who live in Nome, Alaska, you can live your life, and you’ve just got your little isolated world and everything is fine. But I think for most of us, particularly if we’re participating in the larger society, in other words, we’re not in an insular society. That’s no TV, no… You know, we’re in this… we’re connected in this space. I think it’s important to reach out and connect. I think that’ a fundamental part of who we are as human beings; we are very social creatures. And particularly in the current climate, I think it’s important to, as I said in the very beginning, “what can we learn from one another?” You know, I remember one of my fondest memories of music is… I was in El Paso. I love El Paso, Texas. And this mariachi band came in, you know, they sing in the… and this woman was singing… again, it was this sort of song form that didn’t have regular boundaries, that just kind of moved. And it was music of such exquisite beauty. And in that moment, I think, when you experience that, you also experience the beauty in the other people. You know what I mean, you can hear, and it changes you, it changes you, it really changes you because you make this connection that… I mean, music has this power to transcend so many cultural things. When I went to India, I sat next to people, we couldn’t speak. We had just met and could not speak one word to each other, but we picked a key only by like, you know, he played his note and then I was like, “okay, you’re in F sharp”. And then we played and looking at each other, smiling, and it’s incredible, incredible experience when you haven’t spoken a word to anyone, you’re from completely different cultures, and yet it’s like your spirits are touching. And you’re connecting and have big smile. And it’s like a musical hug, you know. And there’s immediate understanding, and there’s a… music transcends all that. And I think that’s one of the beauties of it. If you can make beautiful vibrations, just vibrations, if you could make beautiful vibrations together, I believe it has to change you – it does change you physiologically. I know this. And, so I mean, I think that that’s… it’s not necessary, but it’s something that is extremely important in terms of helping us to connect. And, like I was saying before, in terms of knowing what our role might be. Students can learn that in school, but just to be exposed… just like food is another great thing. You know, if you just sit down and have a great Indian meal, or Brazilian feijoada, if you have some feiojoada. You know, that’s the way… you see it’s the same kind of thing where people sit down, and they’re hungry, and they’re in a foreign country, and they put some different food, and then they try it, and they’re like, “wow this is great”. Immediately you’re connected. Big smiles, everyone’s happy. Music can do the same thing.

John Gardner: That’s beautiful. We’ll enter the last… we’re going to ask three, four questions, no follow up. No time for follow ups, you used up all our time saying amazing things and being a great interview guest. You mentioned food, so I’ll start with an easy one: what’s your favorite food?

Dave Pietro: My favorite food. Oh, that’s really hard to say. Because it just depends… like it’s like my favorite music, I don’t… it just depends on what mood I’m in. I mean, I love sushi. I like Thai food. I’m a big… and Vietnamese food. I like Thai and Vietnamese food. I love Indian food. And that’s, you know what, that’s one of the things about New York that I love so much. In fact, I tell people when, and if, I would ever leave New York, I’ll miss the music, but I’ll miss the food even more. Because in New York you can eat anywhere in the world you want. There’s a great Ethiopian restaurant that’s around our corner and it’s just really amazing.

John Gardner: That’s great, wonderful. What’s been on your mind lately?

Dave Pietro: What’s been on my mind lately? I think what’s been on everyone’s mind lately. I think we’re troubled by being in an era where we’re not coming together, where there’s an accent on our differences instead of an accent on our similarities and our common goals. I mean, I tell people it’s like, you know you love the people in your family. How many of them do you like agree with on everything? You know? So why can’t we take that attitude that we have towards our family and bring it out into larger culture, you know. We could still… You know, you sit in a band… You know, I sit in a band. I don’t ask people with their affiliations are. We make music, you know, we have a common goal and all of that. And sure, we’re going to disagree about should that note be long, or should it be short, or should we do this, or shouldn’t we. This is another one of things about music, I mean. But, we come to an agreement because it’s a common goal, too. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if we play it short or long, it’s a matter of interpretation, and it’s not going to affect the big picture. So, let’s just decide these things and then make some music – get down to making music, and that’s it. If we could make more music together, let me say that: as a society, if we could make more beautiful music together, that would be great.

John Gardner: So, outside of music, any hobbies? Anything that you…?

Dave Pietro: Baseball! I’m a total… that’s my non-music addiction. I’m from Boston, so I’m a Boston Red Sox fan. I watch quite a bit of baseball. I love baseball. It’s, you know, you need something outside of what you always do, I think. But baseball has the same thing, I mean, every time you come up to the plate, you could fail, you know. It’s like… and you need, you know, each other to sort of do their jobs, and a sort of teamwork. And, you know, your pitcher gives up a home run, so you got to pick him up. You’ve got to come in and support. You can’t just point… you don’t just point your finger and say you give up a home run. No, you have to pick up your teammates. You know? So, I tell my students in the band, you know, you’re in a boat, and if there’s a hole in a boat, it doesn’t matter who made it. You’re all going to go down here, so you should just, instead of trying to figure out who made the hole in the boat, you should all work together to fix it and not go down.

John Gardner: Another society. Yeah, it comes together.

Dave Pietro: It’s the same with a baseball team, with a band. If someone makes a mistake, it’s, like all right, you just, you have to…

John Gardner: Like, now what do we do you? What next?

Dave Pietro: Yeah, like I have students, they could be in different places. I’m like, “okay, do you do you hear that you’re not in the same place in the music?” It doesn’t matter who made the mistake. What matters is that you listen to each other, that you recognize that there is a problem, and that you come together towards each other to fix it so you can make good music going forward. Because what you’re making right now, it’s not very good because you’re in two different places.

John Gardner: Yeah, makes sense. Last question: if you could ask one question, and know, and understand, and maybe even be able to execute on the answer, a hundred percent truth, you ask one question, you get the full answer. What would be your question?

Dave Pietro: Why are we predisposed to looking at the negative always?

John Gardner: That’s big.

Dave Pietro: But I think I know the answer to that, you know. I’ve actually been like… There’s some scientists who say that we’re – it’s a survival thing.

John Gardner: Makes sense.

Dave Pietro: Like, we’re like, predisposed to look at the negative because that way we’re more on guard. But, we don’t live in the jungle anymore, you know, in the sense that a tiger might come eat us at any moment, so that way of thinking doesn’t fit our modern way of life.

John Gardner: That it’s also… it’s also maybe easier now for me to see you looking at the negatives, someone else looking at the negatives, if I do understand it from what you just showed me. It’s a natural instinct, maybe we all get this instinct. Maybe it comes back from somewhere else. But now, like you said about music, you said about baseball what’s next? What do we do about it? That’s where we’re at now. What’s next for you is many more great performances. I’ve got to make sure you don’t miss your flight to the next one.

Dave Pietro: Yes.

John Gardner: Dave, so thankful that you made the time, really appreciate. It’s been such a blast talking with you.

Dave Pietro: My pleasure, John. Thank you.

(Outro Music Plays)

John: Oh man! I loved that conversation! My favorite part was when he talked about sitting with all those albums and listening for the first time but just letting it wash over him without judgement. If we could do more of that as a society, I know we’d be in a much better place. You can find out all the great things Dave Pietro is up to at davepietro.com and you’ll definitely want to check out that new release, “New Roads: Iowa Memoirs”. And if you enjoyed this episode, if it brought you any value, I ask two things of you: number one, click the subscribe button so you never miss an episode and tell a friend! Do that right now actually, send a text, or tweet about it or something. But most of all I thank you so much for tuning. Remember to listen widely. Open ears equals open minds. And we’ll catch you next time. 

For The Extra Curious


Musical Mentions