In his distinguished and sometimes surprising career, pianist Mike Longo has established himself as an invaluable sideman, most notably with Dizzy Gillespie, and as a versatile leader of groups ranging from his 17-piece New York State of the Art Jazz Ensemble to his six-man eponymous Funk Band. Longo is also a master of the trio format, and he dedicates his new CD, "Step On It," to explorations of jazz standards in the company of two favorite trio-mates, bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Lewis Nash. Longo’s label, Consolidated Artists Productions, will release the disc on March 4.
“To the average listener he is playing great jazz,” says producer Bob Magnuson of Longo, “but anyone who has followed the curve of his career hears the highly refined development of a consummate artist.”
The trio had previously been heard on "Sting Like a Bee" (2009), a Top 5 jazz radio staple, and its follow-up "To My Surprise" (2011), which added guest soloists Jimmy Owens and Lance Bryant. “We seem to have an enormous amount of rapport as a unit once the downbeat hits,” understates Longo. For Step On It, he rehearsed with Cranshaw and Nash for two hours the day before the recording: “We just ran down the heads so we would know the direction each composition would take and the concept of performing them.” Almost everything at the session was nailed in one take.
Playing songs you’ve heard hundreds of times, Longo makes you think you’re hearing them for the first time. Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti,” a pensive modal classic by the Miles Davis Quintet, is transformed on Step On It into what Longo called “a real groove thing.” Joe Henderson's mini-tone poem, “Black Narcissus,” is pumped with energy. “We play it like a delicate waltz,” said the pianist. His polymetric threesome’s treatment of “Poinciana” was influenced not by Ahmad Jamal’s classic cocktail recording but the Four Freshmen’s textured, high-spirited rendition.
“Jazz is like a baseball game,” says Longo. “People say, oh man, I’ve seen all this before. But then you start playing, even with the least bit of preparation, and you find something new in the themes, the time conception, the band’s touch. The three of us all come from the same school of playing. We don’t know what’s gonna happen.”
Born in Cincinnati in 1939, Mike Longo was 8 when his family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he crossed paths with (and got some early breaks from) Cannonball Adderley. He got “hooked on” Oscar Peterson and, in the fall of 1961, spent six intensive months in Toronto taking private lessons from the keyboard virtuoso. “I had to practice 13 hours a day,” he says, “but it was worth it.”
Back in New York, he accompanied such singing greats as Jimmy Rushing, Nancy Wilson, and Joe Williams. Serendipity struck at the Metropole, where Longo was performing downstairs with trumpeter Red Allen at the same time Dizzy Gillespie was leading his band in the room upstairs. During a break, Gillespie saw Longo perform and was impressed enough to name him as one of the best young talents around in the union magazine, International Musician.
Two years later, Gillespie saw Longo perform at Embers East; some months after that, Gillespie asked him to become his pianist after seeing Longo’s trio (with bass great Paul Chambers) back Roy Eldridge, a hero of Dizzy’s, at Embers West. Longo held down the piano chair in Gillespie’s quintet from 1966 to 1973 (following Kenny Barron). He became Dizzy’s music director, composer, arranger, and devoted blood brother, and continued working with the man long after going out on his own.
“When I first heard Dizzy and Charlie Parker’s music in the eighth grade, it was like listening to tape running backwards,” says Longo. “But something I heard stuck in my head, a certain sound in Dizzy’s playing. I had this weird dream in which I went to the piano and played that sound like I knew it, the sound of that place in his playing that was falling in a strange place in the time. Everything seemed different to me after that.”
Longo’s 1962 debut album, "A Jazz Portrait of Funny Girl," was one of numerous jazz-goes-Broadway collections released during that era. In the intervening years, he has amassed a deep body of originals, including a wide assortment written for or about Dizzy (“Matrix,” “Soul Kiss,” “Samba,” “I Miss You John,” and the orchestral work, A World of Gillespie). He also has enjoyed a successful second career as an educator and creator of instructional books and videos.
“One of the most important things I learned was discovering the place inside you where real music comes from,” says Longo. “You don’t really compose something, you uncover it. Dizzy used to say music is out there, waiting for someone to come get it.”