A Conversation with David Lahm

by Wally Breese
JoniMitchell.com
April 16, 1999

David Lahm and I spoke by phone late on a Friday night, me in my cottage in San Francisco, he in his studio in New York City. I found him to be an intelligent, enthusiastic and up-front man, who has a deep fondness for the music of Joni Mitchell.

The album Jazz Takes On Joni Mitchell contains staight-on jazz instrumental versions of eight JM compositions.

Here's our conversation:

David Lahm: Hello.

Wally Breese: Hello, may I speak to David Lahm, please?

David: Is this Wally?

Wally: Yes, it is! And I'm calling to talk to you about your new album, Jazz Takes On Joni Mitchell.

David: Of course.

Wally: Great! So tell me, why Joni Mitchell songs for your album?

David: It's odd, but I've been a jazz lover and musician ever since I was a teenager and I really never cared for what was called pop music and there was just a strange fascination and attraction.

Wally: What album was the first one that introduced you to Joni?

David: Clouds.

Wally: Was that when it was a new release?

David: Yes, when it was new.

Wally: What was it about that album that really struck you? Because it's pretty much of a folk album, not jazz, as I would have expected.

David: I'll tell you my whole life story if I really try to answer that question. I was 28 or 29 years old at the time and it just...Aaaaooooh!

Wally: Even on early albums like Clouds we have what Joni calls her weird tunings and unique harmonies.

David: Well, that certainly was part of it but more than that it was really the persona that comes through. This person that refers to herself as 'I.'

Wally: Yes.

David: I've been thinking of having this conversation with you and it really takes me back to the time I was on the road with the Buddy Rich Band. The jazz drummer? Are you familiar with him?

Wally: Yes, I'm very familiar with him. You were with him in the late 1960s then?

David: I was there from late 1968 until early 1970 and when I heard the Clouds album, I had really just been off the band for about a month.

Wally: I used to see Buddy Rich on Mike Douglas and other variety type TV shows in the 70s.

David: Yes, we did The Mike Douglas Show. I remember that very well.

Wally: I'm from the Philadelphia area, so it was a local show there.

David: That's right, yes. We were playing the Mark Twain Riverboat in the basement of the Empire State Building in New York and we went down in a bus in the afternoon and we did that show and then came back.

Wally: Yeah, Buddy was quite a character. At least he came off that way to me. A rather aggressive kind of guy.

David: He was certainly that. He had a very percussive personality.

Wally: (Chuckles)

David: I'll tell you, that was the most mellow time of his life, I think. He was very happy with the band. They were doing well and there were lots of people, relatively speaking, within the band who were much closer to his own age and experience and had much more in common with him than would become the case later on. So it was a great time for me to be with that band.

Wally: So you were considered one of the young guns then, right? (Laughs)

David: At that time I was kinda in the middle. I was about 29. Richie Cole joined the band during that time.

Wally: And he was young.

David: He was very young. He was about 19 or 20. And also I don't know if you've heard of Bob Magnusson, a wonderful bass player who later worked with Sarah Vaughan? So this is like my first time away from home, in a sense. You know, I grew up very comfortably in New York City, went to private school, went to Amherst College and all during that time I was in an environment with people who were very much like myself. So going out on the road with this band was really the first time that I lived and worked at close quarters with people who had come from different backgrounds. It was also the end of the 1960's, which had really intimidated me, and I hadn't participated in them.

Wally: You mean all the freedoms people were experimenting with?

David: Yeah, I was really a 50's guy. At least I was until maybe the 1980's.

Wally: (Laughs)

David: Then I started to catch up. By being around people who were much more in tune with openness. I was thinking today, being on the road with these guys, they would do things that were as simple as, they would just ask for things. They would walk up to somebody or have a converstaion between sets in a club and a guy might say "You know I need to have some work done on my horn and there's a guy over in Sausalito...would you come and pick me up at the hotel and take me over there? I know you; I'm sure you must have a car." Which is absolutely, perfectly normal. What's the worst that can happen? The person can say "No." But to me, to ask for something that way was really bold. That was really outside of my habits, outside of my experience. And the persona that came through on the Clouds record was somebody who was very much like the people that I was meeting in the band. Somebody who was much more open, much more expressive about feelings, and much more sexually at ease. You might even say promiscuous.

Wally: Well, there's a quote I got from a Billboard article where you said, if I can quote you here? "I confess I was also attracted to her voice which seemed confessional and a bit promiscuous at the same time. So there was some lust in my attraction to her music." Now I don't think people talk enough about the sensual quality of Joni's voice, and in her music.

David: When I'm talking about voice I'm really talking about a literary, poetic, authorial voice rather than the vocal quality. I think it's most unique and differentiated from her contemporaries. There's a lot (of singers) who have sexy, sensual voices on a recording but to be able to be able to say some of the things this persona said on the record, you know, without realizing it I was just very vulnerable at that time.

Wally: Being with the band had already broken down some of your barriers.

David: Oh yes! That sort of got it started and this was just another step. You know, I had to really catch up in a hurry. I was so retarded as far as emotional growth for so many years and going out in the band and to some extent, perhaps, listening to Joni's music and then going into therapy. Many things changed in my 30's.

Wally: Well, if the persona that she projected in Clouds blew you away, I would imagine that you were even more blown away with the next album, Ladies Of The Canyon, where Joni was talking about mutiple partners and other counter cultural matters.

David: By the time Ladies Of The Canyon came out, I paid a lot of attention to it but I was in some ways more, in some ways less stablized myself. And I already knew her a little bit by then, so it didn't quite have the same thunderous impact on me. Although that was a wonderful recording and I got very interested in playing some of the tunes from it.

Wally: Did you follow her albums from then on? Pretty much buying them when they came out?

David: Well, actually, I skipped a few.

Wally: As most people did.

David: Yeah, I skipped the Tom Scott venture.

Wally: Oh really! Her most successful albums commercially. You could hear the songs on the radio though.

David: I don't know why I skipped that one but I did.

Wally: You know, I'm just guessing here, surmising, but maybe you thought of it as kind of ersatz jazz. You know, not really true jazz?

David: Well, he's actually a very fine jazz musician. He played with Shelley Manne at one time, I think, and then he had his own group and he was really one of the very good jazz saxophone players.

Wally: Joni lost a bit of intimacy with those albums, I think, by reaching out commercially.

David: I didn't buy Blue either, though. I didn't hear that until much later.

Wally: Really! What do you think of it now?

David: I actually got quite involved with it several years ago. A singer that I accompanied in New York wanted to do a couple of evenings of Joni Mitchell songs and I think she was encouraged by the fact that I was really interested in doing it, too. I met her through mutual friends and she was really hooked into the Blue record. So I listened to that a lot and there are things on it that are very, very warm to me. "All I Want" is really something. I don't even play it that often, you know, it's special. I just sort of save it and every couple of years I go back and listen.

Wally: You mentioned being an accompanist. I understand that you've had jobs like that in the past, working as an intermission pianist and playing music in piano bars. Is that true?

David: Oh yes, that's what I do now, actually. I accompany singers in cabarets, I work private parties and I play piano bars and open mikes. As you know, I'm in my late 50's now and actually my background was jazz, show tunes, movie tunes and what they call the American standards. I have a very big collection of that stuff, I'm very interested in it, and I think that those two interests-the American popular song and jazz- are one of the reasons that I reacted to her music the way I did. I saw the way in which certain of her songs overlapped with styles of jazz. Whereas if I had just been into one kind of music that might not have happened.

Wally: I see. Do you play any of Joni's music in piano bars?

David: Oh yeah! In fact, if I see a woman who looks like she's in her 30's or 40's, who sits down by herself and if she's anywhere near the piano I usually play some Joni stuff. One night, I played "Morning Morgantown" and a woman came up and said; "I used to listen to that song everyday!" There's a restaurant that I play at where one of the waitresses, who can't be more than in her late twenties, said to me after one set: "Oh, you played "Ladies of the Canyon." And I said, "Yeah!" So that was very encouraging, to know that many generations are involved and care.

Wally: It's true. Joni doesn't have a huge audience but she does have a very devoted one, and there are many young people who are into her music. You know, I come in contact with a lot of people through the website.

David: Yes, I'm on the discussion list.

Wally: I know. I've seen your posts.

David: People on there are identifying themselves fairly often as being quite young.

Wally: Yes. But I think there are also a lot of people my age on there, in their forties, you know.

David: Oh, absolutely!

Wally: Your album is named Jazz Takes On Joni Mitchell. Until I actually received my copy of the album, I wasn't sure which way to take that statement. Because you can take it as jazz "takes on" Joni Mitchell, as if it's something that's going to be a struggle but it's something that you're going to do. Or, you could read it as, and I guess this is the way you intended it, as "jazz takes" on Joni Mitchell.

David: You know, actually, the title was not my idea. It was the record label. My idea was to do something far more arty.

Wally: For example?

David: Well, to use some of her own language. Actually, I wanted to call it Renegade Stories but had I called it that, nobody would have been able to look at the spine of the thing in a store on a shelf...

Wally: And know it was full of Joni Mitchell songs. Yeah, exactly!

David: So that's a very good example of why I've done so poorly marketing myself.

Wally: (Chuckles) Well, being on Arkadia Jazz should help because they're certainly an up and coming label. They've had a very successful few years with a bunch of Grammy nominations. Maybe you'll get one.

David: Well, I wouldn't turn it down.

Wally: (Laughs) Neither would I.

David: The first thing that I knew about their distribution was, a couple of months before the American release apparently, it was released in Japan. They wanted to see if I cared. They also wanted to put the track "Blue Motel Room" first.

Wally: As a single? Or first on the album?

David: They wanted to sequence it with "Blue Motel Room" first and I said: "Hey, you're marketing it. Go ahead! Do whatever you want." And the reason, I figured out later, is that Lew Tabackin, who's the soloist on that cut, is a very big jazz hero in Japan. He's been over there many times, and he's married to Toshiko Akioshi. And Toshiko is the first Japanese jazz musician to really make it worldwide. She's been playing since the 1950's. At one time, before she was married to Lew, she was married to a saxophone player named Charlie Mariano and, of course, she's the number one jazz hero to the Japanese people because she was the first to make it. So they travel there very often and obviously it makes sense to put something featuring Lew Tabackin at the top of the record.

Wally: Absolutely! So it's been out since February in Japan? How's it doing so far?

David: I don't know.

Wally: They're not letting you know anything like that?

David: Well, I'm not inquiring all that much. I'm certainly interested but there are so many other things that I'm more concerned with. I don't even know if they have the figures yet.

Wally: And they may not. I guess, even though the official release date was last Tuesday (April 13th), CDNOW mailed it out to their customers at least two weeks before that. I think Kakki from the discussion list mentioned that she had it ahead of time.

David: Yes, she did.

Wally: And people are buying it through the website, too. I have a link to CDNOW.COM and I get a list of what people buy. So I know your album is selling well through there. People seem interested in it.

David: Well, that's very nice to hear. I figured they would be. I think that it's just, you know, it's a kind of unique chance happening that she and I would be in the same universe.

Wally: (Chuckles)

David: Because it just seems so unique that somebody would have this particular response to her music and so I'm not surprised that many people are curious to see what's on this record.

Wally: You've gotten some good responses from others on the discussion list, too. People who've heard it have responded positively.

David: Nobody doesn't like it.

Wally: I'll be honest with you. The first time I played the album I said to myself- "Where's Joni's melodies, where are they?" But as I listened more and more, I was able to pick them out. The reason, I think, is because sometimes you have horns playing the melody line, sometimes it's the harmonica, and on "Song For Sharon," it's even vibes! Did you play all the keyboards on the album?

David: No, as a matter of fact, I didn't. I had a concept that I wanted organ on "Blue Motel Room." So I said to Lew Tabackin, because he was going to be my soloist, I said, "Who do you want to play organ?" And he said, "I want Mike LeDonne."

Wally: Where's he from?

David: Well, he has his own trio and he lives here in New York. He lives a twenty minute walk from where I live. He's an excellent pianist. I've heard him play. I had never heard him play organ before we recorded but Lew said he played and Mike LeDonne picked his own rhythm section. He said "I always work with Kenny and Peter." And that's the way it went. I was really focused on making the music sound the way I wanted it to sound and I didn't care whether I played it or not, frankly.

Wally: I see. Is that the only cut you're not on?

David: No. He also played the organ on "Shadows and Light."

Wally: But you produced all the tracks, right?

David: Well, yes, I did. I mean, I conceived of how to do it. I wrote the arrangements and I guess you could say I produced, conducted, arranged. I did everything because so many of these people were almost completely unfamiliar with Joni's music.

Wally: Oh, I wanted to ask you about that. Now they had certainly heard her name?

David: They had heard her name, I think, to a large degree but I can't think of anybody who really had much interest. Because she's not a jazz musician, or so she says anyhow. Although one of the guys who helped produce "Blonde In The Bleachers," and I guess it was "Song For Sharon," that we did on the same session, his name is Gene Perla. An excellent bass player and I think that he played some gigs with Joni at the time when Don Alias was playing with her.

Wally: In the late '70s.

David: In the late 1970's. So he's the only one who had ever had any contact with Joni and he wasn't really playing for me, he was just helping to produce. And the other person who may have known her was Randy Brecker, because his brother...

Wally: Michael Brecker. Right! He played in Joni's band in the '70s.

David: Yes.

Wally: Let me ask you: Why did you pick this particular batch of songs? "Solid Love" for example, seems an obvious choice for an album of jazz covers of Joni's songs, but "The Fiddle and the Drum?" Why did you pick these songs and why no songs from Mingus, for heaven's sake?

David: I've never even listened to Mingus. I guess I heard "The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines" once or twice. And of course, I know the pork pie hat song, from his own version.

Wally: Right, the original instrumental version.

David: These songs just happened to strike me as overlapping with certain styles of jazz.

Wally: Each song in a different way?

David: Well, I guess that's true. I mean I tried to arrange them and produce them so there would be as much specific demarcation between styles as possible. For instance, if you're just talking about chronologically in the history of jazz, the analog to "Blue Motel Room" and "Edith And The Kingpin," in terms of jazz styles, are pretty much contemporary. Miles Davis in his mature ballad style happened pretty much at the same time as the tenor saxophone/organ lineup becoming prominent in jazz through somebody like Stanley Turrentine, for instance. That's a name that may be familiar to you.

Wally: I've heard that name. Yes.

David: But I was trying to make sure there wouldn't be any confusion. Those two songs on my record would set distinctly different moods. I was more concerned with exemplifying particular styles of jazz than I was with just turning the musicians loose and letting them do whatever they wanted.

Wally: So you told them what particular arrangement or feel you wanted?

David: I would sometimes say, like when we were doing "Blue Motel Room," I said, "This is like an organ trio in a roadhouse." That was the best word: Roadhouse. When we were doing "Solid Love," I said "This is like a small Count Basie Band." I tried to get as many specific elements of a style to be prominently heard as possible, so there'd be no mistaking what kind of jazz I was referring to. They weren't even necessarily my favourite tunes but there was just a hook there. For instance, "Blonde in the Bleachers" is a song which, at first, I didn't really care for. I mean, to me, there's a great difference between her recorded material when she plays piano and when she does not. I don't get anything of the impact on the piano tracks that I do when she's playing rhythm guitar.

Wally: She IS a master guitarist.

David: It's the presence of the instrument, and the rhythm and the beat. I was listening to Don Juan's Reckless Daughter tonight. It's just so seductive. I mean, on the title track the groove that they get into is really powerful.

Wally: Yeah!

David: To me, none of that takes place when she plays the piano. A lot of these tracks were recorded a long time ago.

Wally: I noticed that.

David: Yeah, about six or seven years ago. I can't accurately tell you what all the thought processes were that went into each tune but I think I do remember that there was something about that lyric to "Blonde in the Bleachers" that suggested some kind of imbalance mentally. It just sounds a little bit crazy!

Wally: (Laughs)

David: The thing we put on at the end of the song which we call the "The Vamp From Hell."

Wally: Right. The only piece on the album not written by Joni.

David: I had that laying around with no place to use it and I thought "Well, it's pretty nuts, and this lyric is a little nuts, so why not see if we can do something with that." Then I had the piano part that goes under the flute melody, chord voicings that I came up with, and that was just sort of laying around with no application. The melody of that tune is written almost all in one scale or it sounds like it's kind of modal, so let's try it and see what happens. To my ear it sounds great and the other thing was that it was the melody but sounding very different from the way it sounds when she plays it in a very diatonic way on the piano. I had it rather chromatic. So one part would fit and then there would be another fit, so gradually sections of the song or aspects of the song began to find homes in my drawer. You know, my drawer being the place where I leave music that I've written but is not complete yet. So they just began to match up, little fragments that I had that I hadn't found a use for began to attach themselves to certain aspects of that song and once I did that, then writing the ensemble part with the violin and the vibes was just easy. That was just filling in the last few pieces of the crossword puzzle and you've got almost all of the stuff there. And I knew it would sound kind of piquante because I'm not really a skilled orchestrator and that's the sound that I wanted. I didn't want it to sound too smooth. So that was very interesting to me, the process of putting that particular song together. Whereas, "Solid Love" kind of came all in one piece. There was no doubt where we were going with that. That's a Miles Davis ballad. That's a Count Basie style swing tune.

Wally: Were both versions of "Solid Love" recorded around the same time?

David: Yes.

Wally: How come it took so long to get this record out? I read in the credits that the tracks were recorded in '93, '94, and '95.

David: Well, it took quite a while to put it together for one thing. It took over two years to get all of the stuff rehearsed, written, recorded, mixed and edited. That took a long time and then I tried to sell it to the large companies. I have a cousin who knows Ahmet Ertegun. He's no longer, I think, the day to day operating head at Atlantic Records but certainly if he came in and told them "I heard something that you really should listen to," I'm sure that they would listen.

Wally: Oh Yeah!

David: And we sent it to some of the larger companies. I was getting a lot of help from a guy who used to be a manager in the business. He does a lot of negotiating of contracts and things. He lives up in Oakland.

Wally: What's his name?

David: Al Evers of A Train management. He's been a very good friend of mine for over twenty years and he advised and helped me connect to some of these people. And nobody wanted it.

Wally: Because it was a jazz album or because you were an unknown?

David: I think my being an unknown was a major factor. Also, it may be that even as a jazz album, it's somewhat unusual in the sense that obviously it's not one single group all the way through. And equally obvious, the tunes are going off in lots of different directions and I think that relatively few jazz albums cover that much of a range, at least out of the brain of one creator. And one person, I forget who they were, got back to Al Evers and they said, "Oh, this is too conservative. This is timid." And it really kind of shocked me. What the hell! Part of the fun of it is fielding all these unanticipated reactions.

Wally: So you got turned down by all the big companies?

David: Turned down by companies large and small.

David: Bob Karcy is a friend of my wife and me. We've known him for many, many years and he's had a video business for a long time. He started Arkadia about three years ago. And we talk to him quite often. In fact, I even wrote liner notes for several of his jazz videos.

Wally: Oh cool! Does he have any rare video of Billie Holiday?

David: No, no Billie Holiday. I mean, I myself don't watch jazz videos that much.

Wally: Me neither, but I would certainly love to see some Billie. So Arkadia Jazz picked you up and hopefully they'll market your album in an enthusiastic way.

David: Well, I think that they will. Certainly they know an awful lot more about what finally makes the sale happen than I do.

Wally: Well, Jay Moskowitz, whom I've exchanged e-mail messages with, he's head of marketing at Arkadia. Now a lot of times I have to do all the work to get anything started, to get a contest going or whatever, but this guy is very aggressive and helpful, and I appreciate that. So you've got someone good working and pushing you at the record company.

David: I'm really glad! That's very good to hear!

Wally: It's important. Now I hear that you did a radio interview recently on WBAI's "City in Exile?"

David: Yes, I guess it was sometime in the last six weeks or so. I think that one of the first times I posted to the list I alluded to this as being just an example of the unanticipated reaction that you can get. I don't know if I told you this but here's a perfectly intelligent woman interviewing me and I've got fifteen minutes to plug my CD. I'm really hot to go at it and all she wants to talk about is that she's sure that the song "Coyote" refers to the actor Peter Coyote.

Wally: Oh gosh! Yeah, some people really get off on that sort of thing with Joni's songs because she does everything from the 'I' perspective that you talked about earlier. People believe that her songs are specifically about somebody, and usually they're not, and even if they are, that's not the most important thing. It's what the song means to you, it's not who it's about or what famous people are in the song. So you didn't get much plugging in at that interview?

David: All I could say to her finally was "You know, if that's your take on it I can't stop you, go ahead."

Wally: So have you had a good critical reaction in the press?

David: The reviews haven't really come out yet. I was thrilled that Billboard did a piece about the album.

Wally: Yes, that was cool.

David: I think that actually, perhaps I originated that idea because I'd read Tim White's long piece about Joni when they gave her the Century Award.

Wally: Tim White is a great supporter of Joni's.

David: Yes, and I remembered that and I think that my idea first was that he would write the liner notes to the album but I guess that would have been a conflict of interest somewhere along the line. But fortunately, I was carrying the CD around and I was trying to get into the offices of Billboard and I was very fortunate that the art director was just returning from lunch and he very kindly walked me in. I was actually looking for a copy of their story on Joni because I didn't have it anymore, and I remembered that somewhere in the story, Joni was talking about a guy who built guitars for her, but I didn't remember his name or know how to contact him.

Wally: Fred Walecki?

David: Right. Now i know. Fred Walecki of Westwood Music. I think that actually what Bob Karcy of Arkadia Records and I were hoping was that we might be able to get her to contribute some art to the cover.

Wally: So you tried, but never got a response?

David: That in effect never happened. I actually talked to Fred Walecki and he said, "Oh, I'm gonna be seeing her next week" but then that apparently got rescheduled so we just dropped it because we had to move on.

Wally: Have you sent a copy to Joni? Because I think you really should. Generally, she doesn't appreciate covers of her own stuff, but I think your album is unique enough that she might like it.

David: Well, I think that there's a lot there that she might like, although I must say (although you didn't ask me), that's the question people ask me more than anything else "Does Joni Mitchell know about this recording...Why don't you send it to her...Why don't you contact her?" And the one thought I've had, because, you know, I'm a creator myself and I could perfectly well understand her being miffed at the fact that the most recent song of hers that I did is like, twenty years old.

Wally: "Solid Love?"

David: Yeah. So I can see her saying "Why isn't he interested in what I'm doing now?"

Wally: Yeah, I can see her doing that, too.

David: Although I would also not be surprised if she were delighted at how much of her own music was retained in this. Not only the music but some of the feeling that went behind it.

Wally: Well, great! I'm so happy I was able to talk with you tonight, David. I hope that the Webpage I put up with our conversation exposes people to your album and that it helps to sell it.

David: Well, I'm sure that it will, Wally. I'm sure. So it was very kind of you to get in touch and I'm sure we'll be tapping out messages again to each other.

Wally: Definitely.


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