Fynsworth Alley: Terry Trotter

Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.


Terry Trotter

Terry Trotter

TERRY TROTTER is one of Fynsworth Alley’s most prolific recording artists, mostly as the arranger and pianist of The Trotter Trio, the jazz combo famous for its Sondheim in Jazz series, which includes Passion, Sweeney Todd, Company, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, A Little Night Music, and Follies. Most recently, the trio ventured off-Broadway for their jazz rendering of The Fantasticks.

DL: Let’s start talking about how you began playing piano.

TT: My mom is a wonderful classical pianist, so when I was about four years old I started messing around with the piano to see if I had some talent. I started studying when I was four. My mom didn’t teach me, but she sat with me every day. I had to practice every day from the time I was four until I left high school. Of course, by the time I was thirteen, I wanted to practice, you couldn’t get me away from the piano. Before that, I had to do a certain amount in the morning and a certain amount in the night – I practiced a lot, every day including Christmas and New Year’s. I had a one-week vacation every year where I couldn’t physically get to a piano, but the rest of the year, I had to practice or suffer the consequences.

DL: How did you move into the jazz world?

TT: When I was about twelve, my mom could see that my interest was not as strong as it had been. I heard some jazz music, and she decided to let me go away from the classical for a while. I got really interested in the jazz music, but in classical music also. I studied jazz for about two years and then went back to classical and studied for another ten years with great teachers including Victor Aller, Joseph Levine, and Leonid Hambro who used to travel with Victor Borge as his second pianist. He was also the orchestra pianist for the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein.

DL: Was piano always a professional interest?

TT: As soon as I got involved in jazz, I knew that’s what I had to do. I couldn’t do anything else. I was a hopeless student, a half-way decent athlete but nothing great, and I was pretty much an introvert, so I didn’t communicate well with people at that time. And I loved jazz music. Through jazz, for some reason, I got turned on to classical. My mother was always around playing, so I always heard this wonderful playing and that helped. My sister, who is three years older than me, became an opera singer, so she was studying music too. There was always music going on in my house.

DL: These days, do you ever perform classical music?

TT: I did a recording with Jim Self, we did the Halsey Stevens Sonatina for Bass Tuba and Piano. I’ve done some chamber music type things. I still get up every morning, have a cup of coffee and play Bach. Every single morning, it’s like my benediction of the day.

DL: How did you move from being a concert pianist into being a recording pianist?

TT: I was never really a concert pianist. I did a certain amount of that, but I wasn’t a child prodigy as a classical pianist. I was just a decent classical pianist. Moving from classical music to jazz, and then starting to work with various people in the jazz field when I was very young – because I was kind of a prodigy in jazz – I was playing with important people by the time I was sixteen. There was a lot of wonderful stuff going on in Los Angeles at the time in the jazz field, and there weren’t a lot of pianists. So I hooked up with Charles Lloyd, Bobby Hutcherson, Herby Lewis, Harold Land, Teddy Edwards, all these various jazz players, and they kind of took me under their wings (well, not Bobby Hutcherson; we were contemporaries), and I just got better being in that kind of environment. I had that going, and I still had the classical going in the background – I just loved it; I’m addicted to playing classical music. At a certain point, when I was about nineteen, I was invited to go with Miles Davis, and I decided that after being around that environment, I didn’t like all the drugs, I didn’t like the lifestyle. Because I could improvise and also read music, I decided to stay in town and do studio work. That became my thing for a number of years.

DL: How did you become Terry Trotter, solo artist? Or even Terry Trotter, of the Trotter Trio?

TT: That came much later. I played on jazz albums here and there; I put down a couple of things with Phil Woods. And being a studio musician, I was called in to work with various singers. I worked with Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald (on Ella sings Jobim), etc. Just being around all of this, and playing occasionally in town, I kept things going, but I never had any kind of a trio going. That came when Bruce Kimmel called me about the Sondheim in Jazz project. I sent him a CD I had done for the MAMA Foundation. He listened to it, called me, and said, “You’re the person I want to do this.” That’s when the trio started actually performing and doing work. We’ve done a lot more recording than live work, though.

DL: How did you meet Bruce, and how did you hear that he wanted to start this Sondheim in Jazz project?

TT: Well, he told me that he had talked to David Lawrence, and David had felt that I would be a good person because I had done some Broadway music before. I had done Side by Side by Sondheim at Hartford. It was a pretty famous production because a lot of famous people in it died afterwards – thought no fault of mine. The cast included Hermione Gingold, Larry Kert, Milicent Martin – wonderful Broadway people. So I had the exposure to it then, and I was in the pit of A Chorus Line when it came to Los Angeles. When Bruce heard the jazz CD I had done, he could hear that I had the ability jazz-wise and he knew that I loved Broadway music also, so we figured it would be a perfect match. We started with Passion, which isn’t one of Sondheim’s easiest scores to move into the jazz idiom. But after doing all these CDs, Passion is still my favorite.

DL: Did you ever work with or talk to Sondheim himself while you were doing any of these?

TT: No. When I did Side by Side, he came to the last week of rehearsals. There I got to know him a little bit. He made suggestions, and he was always a gentleman. When I first told him I was doing this jazz project, he had forgotten who I was. “Terry who?”

DL: You had done jazz before, and you had done shows as shows before, but had you ever done jazz versions of entire musicals before?

TT: No, I had never done that before. Whenever I had done solo performances at a night club, I would just play jazz tunes and standards, never anything where there was a Broadway theme. I had always loved what Andre Previn did many years ago with My Fair Lady [with the Shelly Manne trio]; that was the first time I remember hearing someone taking a whole show, and he did a really nice job. It was very fresh.

DL: When you launched into Passion in Jazz, did you have any idea that it would become a series?

TT: No, I didn’t.

DL: Did you go back and listen to people like Andre Previn or Oscar Peterson who had previously done jazz trio versions of musicals?

TT: No, I didn’t even get to see Passion. I asked Bruce if I could go back to New York to see the show, and he told me it was already closed! He got me the cast album, and I decided not to even listen to it so I wouldn’t be influenced by it in any way. I just wanted the score, the pure score, and I spent a lot of time on that, looking at it, looking at the words, trying to figure out which areas of the score I could do as jazz tunes. There weren’t a lot of “songs” in there, so I had to sort of make songs out of certain segments. I just wanted it to be fresh. I didn’t want to be influenced too much. I still haven’t seen Passion, not even the video.

DL: After Passion in Jazz, how did you decide to do Sweeney Todd?

TT: You just do what Bruce tells you. He thought Sweeney Todd would lend itself very nicely to jazz. And he was right.

DL: Did you find it easier to adapt than Passion?

TT: Yeah, it was easier. With Bruce, it’s great, because he’ll come up with an idea and say “This is what we’re going to do,” but then you’re on your own. He’ll let you be creative with it, and even when we’re recording he very seldom comes out and says, “That’s not making it work…” Whenever he has a suggestion, which is not a lot of the time, it will be a very good, perceptive suggestion. It helps me. He knows how I feel and work in music, so our relationship is very comfortable for me in the studio, which can be a very tense atmosphere. We record direct to two-track, and with these long, seven or eight minute pieces, you can’t make mistakes because you can’t go back and fix them. You want to be as relaxed as possible, and Bruce always creates an atmosphere where you can do that. Even before we record, Bruce comes over to my house to listen to what I’m doing. He might make a suggestion, like “Maybe it needs to go this way” or “Why don’t you take a look at this,” but once we’re in a studio, it’s me. He might say, “Why don’t you do another take?” or he might throw a picture in my head on a ballad.

DL: I know on our vocal albums we can edit together different takes, for example, if the verse was best on the first take but the chorus was better on the second. Can you do that with a jazz album?

TT: Sometimes you can, but I remember “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” (which is seven or eight minutes) was tough. We were doing some of the material from the show exactly as it was, and then going into a jazz version of another part, and then there was an improvised part before going back into the melody again. I think I had music stands on either side of the piano, wall to wall music. There was no chance of splicing in that, no way! Sometimes, if there’s a breath or a space, and I see that there is… There are a couple of breaks I occasionally put into the music just for that. But the funny thing is, we’ve never used those as a means of splicing in the end. Bruce always says he loves the danger of direct to two-track, and I say that’s because he’s sitting in the studio with his feet up on the console.

DL: Now that you’ve done The Fantasticks in Jazz, your first musical that’s not Sondheim, does this mark the end of the Sondheim series?

TT: I think Bruce wants to do a CD where we take two or three songs from different musicals of his, but basically, this is it.

DL: If you were going to do more Broadway stuff, regardless of what Bruce thinks, what would you do?

TT: Kurt Weill.

DL: Any particular show?

TT: I’d like to be able to pick from different shows, so I could do “My Ship” and “Mack The Knife.” I don’t think I’m going to get to do that one for a while, though. The next one we’re actually talking about is a solo piano album of all ballads from different shows. “I Can’t Help Loving That Man,” “I Can’t Get Started,” those kinds of things.

DL: I know The Fantasticks was definitely Bruce’s idea.

TT: I didn’t want to do it.

DL: Why not?

TT: I didn’t think there was enough there for me to be able to work with and come up with a decent jazz album.

DL: When he comes to you with an idea that you think isn’t going to be so easy or might not work so well, what’s your process? How do you reach into the score and pull out the jazz bits?

TT: When I first see it, I’ll go through the whole score. Forum was like this – I didn’t want to do that either, but when I called Bruce, he said nonsense and made me try again. So I looked at the score again, I tried some different things, and before you know it, I’ve got six or seven outlines and I think to myself, “Okay, I can do this.” For The Fantasticks, I told him I didn’t think I could come up with the right approach to keep it musical, to make a jazz CD, and to retain the spirit of the songs. He said, well, if you can’t, I’m going to have to get somebody else to do it. I tried once more, and then Bruce came over, and when I played a couple of things, Bruce said “That’s great… Have you tried putting this here…” and so on. And I’m pleased with what happened. As pleased as I’ll ever be, because I’m never satisfied.

DL: Why is that?

TT: I’m a perfectionist.

DL: Is there perfection in something that’s so improvisational?

TT: No.

DL: Then you’re in the wrong business!

TT: You’re right. But there is a kind of perfection in the feeling you create. Sometimes we’ll do a take, and Bruce will look at me, and I’ll say, “It’s not perfect, but this is jazz and I liked the feeling.” And I’m okay with that. It’s about projecting the different kinds of emotions that you want to through the music, and that’s where I sometimes feel that I don’t quite get to the place I want to. But I like that challenge.

DL: In all of your work, do you have favorites that you’ve done?

TT: I love “What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life” on the Michele Legrand album. I really like “Love Like Ours” from Passion. And “No One Has Ever Loved Me.” And even though I don’t do it when I perform, I think “Send In The Clowns” is a lovely song that gets performed too much.

DL: What about songs you haven’t yet recorded?

TT: I love Leonard Bernstein. He’s another one I’d love to do selections from. I love “Some Other Time.” One of my all-time favorite songs that I play almost every time I perform is “Body and Soul.”

DL: You mentioned performing live, but it’s not something you do particularly often. How do you decide when you want to do a live show?

TT: The problem is that there aren’t too many clubs. The clubs that are around don’t always have decent pianos. We went to the Jazz Bakery for the Fantasticks CD release party, and they don’t have a fantastic piano, although it’s decent. You can play on it. A lot of the small clubs I used to play at are gone. If you want to do the Bakery or Catalina’s, you have to send out fliers, you have to let people know you’re going to be there, you need to get two hundred people to come. It’s not like the old days when you could just book the date, book some guys, show up and play the music and have some fun. That’s what I’d like to be able to do. Also, if you start playing too much, the turnout starts to be much less than you’d like. And I have a love-hate relationship with performing. It’s difficult for me to perform live. It takes a lot out of me emotionally.

DL: Is that because of your perfectionism?

TT: Mostly. I’m also basically a shy person. There’s a wonderful Dorothy Parker line about this sort of thing. Someone asked her if she loved writing, and she said, “No, I don’t love writing. I love having written.” I can say the same thing about performing. I love the feeling afterwards. You have a way of connecting with the audience. But the time before the concert is always rough.

DL: Just after you started doing the Sondheim in Jazz albums, suddenly everyone wanted to get into the game. Sony put out their Color and Light Sondheim in Jazz CD, other artists started to get into the game… What did you make of that?

TT: Well, I figured they thought maybe there was some kind of a bandwagon to get on, so they did. But the one Sony Sondheim CD was interesting, but I don’t think it was successful from a musical standpoint. It had some of my favorite players on it, but it just didn’t work. They didn’t, to me, stay connected with the spirit of his music.

DL: Let’s talk a little bit about your secret “pop” life that I don’t think many of our readers know about. You do perform on stage with some pretty big names, such as Natalie Cole. How did you become her pianist?

TT: They just called me. Her husband at that time, Andre Fisher, who was also her producer, knew about me. He called me about the job, and I couldn’t do it then, but eventually the pianist they got had to leave. I was available, and it’s been a nice situation for me. She tours about fourteen or fifteen weeks out of a year. There’s quite a bit of freedom musically, and she does both jazz and R&B. My background is in classical and jazz, but I’ve done a lot of studio work so I guess I’m decently versatile.

DL: Did you play on her albums as well?

TT: Two of them: Stardust and Snowfall on Sahara.

DL: Do you play with other singers too?

TT: I haven’t recently, but in the past I’ve worked with Michael Jackson, which I know sounds weird considering what I do. I’ve worked with Sinatra – the first thing I did with him was Old Blue Eyes Is Back which was a double album at the time he came out of retirement. I did a couple of TV specials and a European tour with Sinatra and Steve and Eydie. I’ve worked with all the big names. Ha ha ha.

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