Q&A

Q&A

Improvising Spirit

Flute master Paul Horn plays live at film and book launch

Q&A / Daybreak, birds, hunting horns, prayers to Allah, the ethereal stillness in the mind of the Buddha, reflecting pools, airy Moorish archways, flute notes prefiguring Close Encounters, human voicings, echoes, sundown, starlight, OM . . . such images and more come to mind listening to Paul Horn’s solo flute suites, Inside the Taj Mahal I & II, recorded in that great domed palace in 1969 and 1989. The sound registers so new, so wild, it’s hard to believe the first, double-Grammy-winning album is more than 40 years old.

Recently, Horn composed the soundtrack, “When the Mountain Calls: Nepal, Tibet & Bhutan,” premiering this weekend. Upon arriving in Honolulu, Horn spoke to the Weekly by phone about his lifelong musical wanderlust, which has propelled him from jazz clubs to sacred spaces in Egypt, Russia, China and the American Southwest, and keeps calling him back to India and the Himalayas, as well as to Hawaii.


What New York City neighborhood did you live in as a child?

My parents lived in the Bronx, but I only lived there until I was four, and then we moved to Washington, DC, where I grew up.

You started playing piano at four years old, and your mother was a pianist. Did she teach you?

She didn’t teach me, didn’t want to, but she found me a teacher because I was interested. She had her own radio show in New York in the ‘20s, and she was an accompanist for Irving Berlin.

You’ve had an illustrious career as a jazz musician, and yet in the 1950s you went to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Weren’t they strictly in the classical canon?

At the time that was all it was. I wanted to get classical training. I thought I would need as solid a background I could get, for versatility, because my goal was to become a studio musician, and to do studio work you never know what you’ll have to do. My major was clarinet and I added flute as a minor. It was either flute or the double reeds, oboe and bassoon, and I wasn’t into those.

How, then, did you get training in jazz?

I loved jazz from an early age, and that’s why I took up the clarinet, then did saxophone as a second woodwind. From the time I was eleven, I wanted to be in a jazz band, I played in jazz ensembles in high school, I improv’d [improvisation]. Jazz is what I loved. When I was at Oberlin, we went to Cleveland to hear Charlie Parker, Lester Young…but as you may know, in Bach’s time, improv was what everyone did. Then it dried up and returned in the 20th century as jazz.

Tell us how you got to know some of the jazz greats.

I went out to the West Coast to work as a studio musician, and I met Count Basie, Miles Davis [and others] when I did an all-star Birdland tour, months worth of playing in major cities. When I was on tour with Sinatra in New Jersey, Tony Bennett came up and introduced himself, and I played with him for years. When Miles came out to the Coast, he got in touch.

Can you explain about Miles and modal jazz?

It’s a mental exercise. Miles thought, there must be a way to improv without all the memorization of chord changes. So, for instance, the C on the Dorian scale is D minor 7. Miles said, Why don’t we just hang out on this chord for about 16 bars? You’d move up or down maybe half a step. The first song he wrote [in modal jazz] was “So What?” All you have [in it] is two chord changes. It really helped you get into the mood [of the song] and so that appealed to me. I think that 99 percent of the jazz audience are people who connect to the music emotionally.

I met John Coltrane, too, when he was with Miles. He was involved in spiritual things in his own way.

How did Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge affect your life?

Only in that he was an adventurer. It piqued my interest in India. It’s a difficult country. If you go there as a tourist, you’ll probably hate it. If you go as I did, for spiritual reasons and to be with a guru…

Has any of your music been inspired by Hawaii?

I think in general, wherever I am, I’m going to be inspired by the location, but that’s not where my music comes from. If you’re an improviser, [you’re playing] how you feel now–very honest, not preconceived. I’ve been coming here since I was in my 30s, and now through [my wife], Ann, and her family, I have connected with Maui. I’ll be improvising [as I] accompany her at the Art Academy. She has a beautiful voice.

Premiere Screening, “When the Mountain Calls: Nepal, Tibet & Bhutan,” produced by Tom Vendetti & Robert Stone, and “In Love with the Mystery,” a reading by author Ann Mortifee accompanied by Paul Horn
Sunday, Nov. 13 at 1:00pm and 4:00pm
The Doris Duke Theatre at the Honolulu Academy of Arts
Tickets, $25, [ticketderby.com]