AT THE SOURCE: DAVE PANICHI'S LIFE IN JAZZ
The shelves in Dave Panichi’s apartment are lined with texts on arranging, improvising, and music technique, and are littered with biographies of famous jazz musicians. The memoirs by Miles Davis and Tony Bennett are at the forefront. His personal recording collection represents a lifetime’s compendium of all the best the world has to offer in the jazz tradition. His trombone, an instrument that has been witness to history on many continents, sits on its stand waiting to be played. Beside it a lone mute sits on the floor.
Sitting on a drummer’s stool, Dave Panichi gets up brings me a drink of water. He clears the lounge of manuscript paper and asks me if I need anything else. Before we start talking, he insists that I announce the date of the recording.
You can sense the history in all of these objects. There are notebooks with comments from Bob Brookmeyer, exercises from the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop, and on a music stand sit the lead sheet sketches for some of Panichi’s tunes, like “Max” and “Footnote”. All of this, sitting in one apartment: a history of jazz, just waiting to be uncovered.
Dave Panichi’s trombone sound is deeply rich both melodically and rhythmically. You can just about hear New York in it. Panichi tends to play “outside” the chords, so that his music remains fresh and modern after all these years. Testament to his successful career, and his sustained engagement with the New York jazz scene, is the long list of luminaries with whom he has collaborated, as both trombonist and arranger—beyond Brookmeyer, there have been Buddy Rich, Bob Mintzer, and Maria Schneider, to name just a few.
Panichi is the torchbearer for heavy-hitting jazz music in Australia. Australian jazz has had its own distinct language, one that, John Shand claims in his Jazz: The Australian Accent, has historically been forged by distance, particularly from the prevailing New York and European jazz sounds. During World War II and before, records were scarce, and musicians had to rely on their own recollections of what they may have heard abroad or on the radio. It was not until the 1970s, in the post-bop era, that Australian musicians had more access to the latest music coming out of America, and could finally start engaging with the ideas of contemporary jazz in real time. As a result, Australian jazz musicians have long been “doing it their own way,” and you could even argue that a large proportion of the nation’s jazz verges on a type of classical music that just happens to contain improvisation. But although it may not always swing, Australian jazz certainly does not lack for what Panichi calls the “grittier” aspects of the music.
As for Panichi's music, it most certainly does swing and groove, and has plenty of that “grit.” His small and big band projects all fall along the lines of great improvised traditions: you can hear the beginnings of the swing bands in his music, the sounds of modern and contemporary jazz, and amidst all of that his own distinct voice emerges, as an amalgamation of his Australian upbringing and his deep ties to New York, that place closest to the source.
Panichi’s story began in the Western Sydney suburb of Greenacre, a poor, largely “fibro” neighborhood of the Bankstown district. It was here that Dave started out playing soprano cornet in the police boys’ band. His best friend had joined and encouraged Panichi to do the same. His best mate left after six months, yet here is Dave some forty-odd years later, still at it. Soon after, he was playing in the Burwood brass band when the director encouraged him to switch to trombone, finding that he had a better tone on that instrument than the cornet.
When he was about fourteen, he saw the Daly-Wilson Big Band perform at the Horden Pavilion. (Many of Australia’s greatest jazz musicians passed through the ranks of the Daly-Wilson Big Band, at one point or another, and it was in large part thanks to them that there was such a high-profile spread of jazz awareness in the country during the 1970s.) They had a chart on “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” that started with a big, soaring high trumpet intro, and when they went up to a high G, the hairs on the back of his neck stood up: “I had a real visceral thrill and I thought, ‘Man, I want to play music with those guys.’ I had formed the intention of playing with those cats and I got the gig. I called up Ed Wilson and said, ‘Hey, I would really like to play in your band.’” Panichi continues:
One Saturday morning, Ed Wilson picks me up and drives me to his house in Penrith and gives me a lesson. He says you’ll need to work on your long tones and all that, and he said in a few months we’re going to form a training band for Daly-Wilson, and I want you to join. This was a Saturday morning training band and […] you [got] paid a few bucks. I wrote a couple of charts for that band. I remember writing "Alfie" and about 1977, when I was about to turn 19, I scored a gig playing for the Daly-Wilson Big Band.
Dave Panichi during the late 1970s
While he had already heard the sounds of brass and big bands in Sydney, it was while on tour in New Zealand that Panichi first heard musicians improvising in a truly modern jazz setting. In the 1970s, it was difficult to get a liquor license in New Zealand, so there weren’t too many places that had after-hours gigs. But, there was one that held regular jam sessions, and Panichi would go there with the other members of the show orchestra with which he was employed. It was then that he knew for certain that he wanted to be a jazz musician, and he started to learn improvising.
“One of my first charts was a transcription from a television show called Class of ’74,” Panchi explains. “There was a theme on there written by Brian Cadd. The piece was in B, which is the worst possible key for brass, full of crook notes on the horns” (crook notes are particularly difficult to execute at speed). “I transcribed it and it sounded pretty poor, so the bottom line was, had I moved it up or down a semitone it would have sounded better. That was a good lesson to learn. If you’re writing for horns you should try writing in flat keys, if you are writing for strings you write in the open string keys because you get a better intonation and sight reading on the strings.”
“I had learned some basics of arranging from listening to records, transcribing them, and from this book. [Panichi goes to the shelf and pulls out an old harmony text covering some of the rudiments of music] I borrowed it from Greenacre Library in the 1960s and have never returned it to this day. Whoops,” kids Panichi.
To further cement his knowledge of composing and arranging, Dave enrolled in the Diploma course at the New South Wales State Conservatorium (now the Sydney Conservatorium), where he studied with trombonist and Blood, Sweat & Tears alumnus Bill Motzing. “Here’s the thing. I studied with a lot of heavy hitters in New York, but Bill gave me a really solid and technical foundation, and so everyone that I studied with subsequently said, ‘Hey man, you have a pretty solid foundation.’”
By this time Panichi was also playing in and arranging for tenor saxophonist Bob Bertles’s group. In 1979 Bertles released Moontrane, a landmark of sorts for homegrown jazz to which Panichi contributed two charts, “Le Tune” and “For Clifford”. His trombone playing received good reviews, and a September 1980 write-up in the Sydney Morning Herald read: “Dave Panichi enjoys a reputation as the outstanding young trombonist in the country today and this record shows that he has everything going for him; interesting ideas, a beautiful sound on the trombone, easy control of the instrument and the ability to extend and consulate his phrases.”
Panichi first visited America in the summer of 1978. “I knew about Downbeat, and Berklee [College of Music] was the only college that advertised in it,” he recalls. “They had a great trombone player, Phil Wilson, who played with Woody Herman in the 1960s, and he was a good teacher. I had already been on Daly-Wilson and then I went to Berklee for three months and saw L.A. and New York and Boston, and I came back with tons of ideas and things to practice, and I came home and practiced my ass off.”
A couple of years later, some of the bona fide giants of jazz came to Australia to give performances and run clinics and workshops. “It was Dave Liebman, John Scofield, Kenny Kirkland. That was the first time that I had heard a really hardcore New York band. I saw them four times in Sydney and four times in Melbourne, and then saw them again in Sydney. They were a killer band. The next year was Woody Shaw and I thought, ‘I have to go to New York so I can hear this stuff every night.’” As fate would have it, Panichi was soon awarded the Don Banks Memorial Scholarship, the prize for which included an airfare to any destination in the world. It was his ticket to New York, where he would stay for eighteen years.
AN AMERICAN ADVENTURE
Arriving in 1981, Panichi soon enrolled in the Eastman School of Music's “Arrangers’ Holiday” workshop, which had a long history of bringing together some of the finest musicians in the world over an intense few weeks. The program included writing arrangements and original compositions and having a big band or jazz orchestra play them. There was also feedback from mentors—an integral learning process for any arranger.
The brainchild of Rayburn Wright, a professor at Eastman, the Arrangers’ workshops began in 1959 and ran until 1990, the year Wright passed away. (Wright remains best known for his Inside the Score, a foundational 1982 text still in use among arrangers and jazz composers.) At the workshop Panichi was introduced to new ideas on arranging and composing that encouraged him to think in more through-composed terms, rather than with the sectional approach and formulaic block-voicings so common in large ensemble jazz. It was with these new skills and ideas in mind that penned what is probably his most famous piece, “Manhattan”.
“Manhattan” was recorded by the Buddy Rich Big Band on the 1983 album Rich and Famous. The chart begins with Rich setting the time, followed by an up-tempo, hard-hitting, brassy theme representing downtown Manhattan. The second theme, a slower, more melancholy one, represents Central Park and the occasional moments of quiet moments to be found in the city—an interesting take on the place, from an Australian’s point of view, and one that captures the dualities of the bustling metropolis. The use of flutes adds a contrasting color in the second theme, a quasi-ballad. Then there is an extended piano cadenza, which leads into a swinging piano solo with bass and drums before the main theme returns. Rich considered “Manhattan” “the best chart in the book,” and implored Panichi to write “ten more like it.”
Dave Panichi during the 1990s
After the Arrangers workshop, Panichi got a call to join Rich’s band in earnest. As a result, “Manhattan” began to be heard on a nightly basis, and the instrumental proved so popular that it was even played as support for Frank Sinatra. Another chart that Panchi composed during his stint with Rich was “Bondi Blues”; it too became a staple of the Rich book.
It was during this time that the story of the infamous “Buddy Rich Tapes” was born. Rich was infamous among musicians for his temper, and in particular, for his profane, post-gig outbursts on the tour bus. One day, Lee Musiker, the band’s pianist, had a tape recorder rolling while Buddy was on one of his rants. On this particular occasion, he was upbraiding Panichi for having grown a beard—Rich considered it unprofessional—even after he had instructed him to shave it off. Rich’s “performance” was so colorful and beyond the pale that it quickly entered the realm of legend, particularly among comedians, who were attracted to its bizarre insults and florid profanity. In fact, three choice lines from the tapes were later prominently included in various episodes of the sitcom Seinfeld, and as Panichi has said: “I could live to be 150 and cure cancer, and I'd still go down in history as the guy from the Buddy Rich tape. I've had cats in China ask me about it. I'm never going to live it down.”
After two and a half years in the Buddy Rich band, Panichi got a call to audition for the fusion group Blood, Sweat & Tears. It was chance luck: he recalls not knowing that the group was holding auditions until a friend told him to get his trombone and get down to the studio. He arrived too late, as they had already selected another player; but since he was already there, the band offered to listen to him anyway. They told Panichi that if things didn’t work out with their candidate, the job would be his. Well, things didn’t work out, and Panichi soon found himself touring with Blood, Sweat & Tears from 1987-88, later returning for another stint in 1997-98.
In 1980s, the trombonist and one-time Stan Getz/Gerry Mulligan associate Bob Brookmeyer had recently returned to New York after an extended period on the West Coast, where he had finally gotten sober following a battle with alcoholism. Upon his return, Brookmeyer got back into teaching, composing, and mentoring (he was also taking lessons himself with the experimental composers Morton Feldman and Earle Brown). He started teaching at the BMI building in New York, where he co-founded the BMI Jazz Composers Workshops, which were geared towards composers and musicians who were not necessarily enrolled in formal conservatory study. In these classes, Brookmeyer encouraged his students to apply the new ideas and concepts he was working with in his own composing, in particular the idea of pitch modules, which creates “topics” based on limited harmonic and melodic material.
Brookmeyer assigned his students exercises whereby they had to create three-note topics using only the white notes of the piano. For instance, just the three notes B, C, and G alone can generate a wide scope of subsequent material. Brookmeyer got his students thinking about long form, extended composition, as well as about transforming four-bar phrase-lengths into more flexible, natural odd-numbered phrasings. For example, Panichi recalls Brookmeyer setting an exercise where the students had to write a page of melody using the white notes within the single octave from middle C to the C above.
Panichi took the exercise and transposed his module up a semitone, to C, D-flat, and A-flat. From these three notes, he generated the entirety of his “Simple Song”:
Of Brookmeyer, now something of a revered figure, Panichi recounts:
He was a bit of a hard ass, Bob. I remember the first class, he was begging us to disagree with him, but if anyone did he got the shits with us. At the class, he was putting down the stuff that he played and wrote when he had a drinking problem. “But the music that you played and wrote then is what made you famous all around the world,” I thought to myself, “and that’s why I loved you as a musician.” He called me up at the end of the day and wrote a letter to the whole class telling us that he was annoyed we weren’t stretching ourselves enough.
“Simple Song” may not have been enough of a stretch for Brookmeyer, but it was a quantum leap for Panichi. “In the second year of the course, I wrote a piece called ‘Lyric Suite’. I’m not sure that that piece hung together, but again, it was a leap forward, it was quite dissonant. I think, to a large extent, was the beginning of my style. I wasn’t that far off the pace of the big cats. We played ‘Simple Song’ last Monday with my latest group, and it’s coherent within its own little world.
One morning around this time, Panichi got a phone call instructing him to get down to the (now defunct) Greenwich Village club Visiones, where Bob Minzter was rehearsing and in need of a trombonist. Panichi: “I was sitting there reading the paper a few feet away from Mintzer, and he said, ‘What are you doing today and tomorrow night?’ I said, ‘I guess I’m playing trombone in your band,’ and so I got the gig. I was a big fan of Mintzer’s band, particularly charts like ‘Latin Dance’, and I had seen them from their early days. In Buddy’s band we played four or five of Mintzer’s charts; Mintzer was in Buddy’s band in the 1970s. I knew the writing and style well, so I was able to easily adapt to the setting.”
Panichi recalls working hard to impress Mintzer on gigs, but that Mintzer rarely commented on his playing. It was only during a recording session for his album Only In New York that Mintzer informed Panichi that he would have a solo on one of the takes. The take Panichi soloed on was “TV Blues”, an extended blues arrangement with Mintzer satirically singing about watching television.
His collaborations with the bandleader Maria Schneider—another Brookmeyer protégé—also dated from this period. “All through the 1990s I was doing a lot of depping on Maria Schneider’s band at Visiones. I was there more often than some of the regulars. I first met Maria in 1981 at Eastman; she has written a few songs that are so good that I wish I had written them, such as ‘Hang Gliding’. I can’t think of many big band charts like that before her.”
By the early 1990s, Panichi finally had enough money to record his own debut album, Blues for McCoy, and thanks to a grant he was able to enlist some of the top New York players, such as saxophonists Dave Liebman and Rich Perry, bassist Jay Anderson, drummer Victor Lewis, and pianist Mulgrew Miller. There are some solid tunes on the album, and Panichi’s multifaceted skill-set as a writer, arranger, small-band leader, and improviser is on total display. Switching easily between slide and valve trombone, Panichi’s solos are full of his rich tone, and showcase his ability to play both inside and outside of the chord changes. It was, Panichi explained in the liner note, the first step towards his ambition of “making a living from creative music, exclusively.”
The title track is Panichi’s homage to pianist McCoy Tyner: it’s a hip piece that has a classic 1960s Blue Note feel.
Another standout track is “All Said and Done”, which dates from Panichi’s Buddy Rich days—only, the form was tricky, and Buddy couldn’t figure out where the top of the chorus was. It was only played about six times, after which Buddy took to calling it “Brain Damage”. It’s a minor blues piece, and the Blues for McCoy version spotlights Panichi’s chops on the valve trombone.
When Panichi went to the distribution company to get the album printed and sold, they told him it was a great disc with great music, but that they needed a story to go with it. “‘Have I got a story for you!’” Panichi thought. “You couldn’t really get more Hollywood if you tried. Coming all the way from Australia, winning an award and ending up in one of the most highly-profiled and booked big bands in American jazz: it was certainly a good starting point.”
After a health scare in the late 1990s with Bell’s Palsy, Panichi was unable to play the trombone for several weeks, and had to relearn a large portion of his technique. Being out of action, he began to reflect on turning forty, and soon, Panichi knew it was time to return to Australia. This was in 2000, and Panichi eased himself back into the local scene. There were lots of gig opportunities, performances, and recordings, and Australian Idol was soon to start on television, for which Panichi played trombone in the session orchestra (he also did some arrangements). In addition, he performed regularly with multi-instrumentalist James Morrison.
Panichi soon began teaching, and out of this experience came the 2003 album Elvin’s Dream, the charts for which were conceived with the dual-purpose of being used as teaching tools for students at the Australian National University (ANU). Panichi’s second album as leader, Elvin’s Dream features the cream of the crop of Australian jazz musicians across three generations: Willow Neilson, Phil Slater, Simon Sweeney, Paul Panichi, James Muller, Matt McMahon, Brendan Clarke, and Craig Simon. It also includes five Panichi originals: the title track, “N’Orleans Thang”, “Manhattan”, “For the Boys”, and “MISTER Baby” (Panichi’s nickname from his time in the Buddy Rich Band).
Concurrent with his teaching, session work, and composing, Panichi undertook a master’s degree at the Sydney Conservatorium, where he produced a detailed thesis on the regulation of live music in New South Wales and why it has, in effect, limited performance opportunities for musicians. This survey was a considerable undertaking, and is a milestone in the research into the economics of live music in Australia. Part of the problem is that the local jazz scene simply lacks the infrastructure to sustain the sheer number of active musicians, so that, as in Panichi’s case all those years ago, they often have to go overseas to learn, develop, and immerse themselves in jazz. Unlike in New York, for instance, in Sydney there are few big bands or jazz orchestras that run full-time and rehearse on a regular basis. In an article for the Illawarra Mercury Panichi lamented:
The level of players is the highest it has ever been in my lifetime. There are more elite level improvisers and we have got rhythm sections that can play together as a unit for the first time. They can take care of their role and really challenge the soloists and engage them in a pretty vigorous conversation musically. That said, the scene is in dire shape. […] The bottom line is hardly anybody is a full-time player any more. It's kind of bittersweet because we have so many good players and far fewer opportunities for them to practice their craft.
Since completing his master’s degree Panichi has enrolled in a composition PhD at the Sydney Conservatorium, something that led him to further explore long-form jazz pieces with ideas borrowed from “art” music. The first piece Panichi composed for his doctorate was “Max”. Like all of his best charts, the brass writing is hard-hitting and all the key ingredients of the Panichi sound are there: “great tunes, grooves, and solos.”
The soulful “Ruby”, which was named after a student of Panichi’s, came to him when he was stuck writing “Max”. “Funnily, this melody kept running through my head. After a few weeks I decided to write it down just to get it out of my head.”
Another chart, “Footnote”, was initially conceived while Panichi was still in New York. “I was living in Long Island. The first couple of the notes are the ‘A Love Supreme’ motif. Also, it’s influenced by the Jaco Pastorius tune ‘Liberty City’. It has a really good build-up, and then fades and drops register. I think, again, this works. It has a lot of Mintzer in the music, and you know, you shouldn’t deny your influences.”
Motif from "A Love Supreme" by John Coltrane
Panichi’s latest project is a group called the Groovemeisters, whose five-piece lineup consists of trombone, saxophone, bass, drums, and keys. As the moniker announces, the group’s concern is with music based on grooves that allows for extended solos and melodies. The group sports a diverse range of influences—from Jill Scott, Herbie Hancock, Lee Morgan, and George Benson to Tower of Power, Average White Band, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Blood, Sweat & Tears.
Panichi also retains ties with many of the world’s top big bands, and over the past few years has been the official arranger for the Danish Radio Orchestra Big Band, for whom he arranges for their annual Composer Competition. Panichi’s unique style is on display in “Pentatonqiue”, a piece he arranged for the first installment of the competition.
Later on in the course of our conversation, I asked Panichi what he thinks are some of the elements that make a successful piece of music work:
You can tell straightaway if a chart is written by a pro or an amateur. You can tell if there are no rests in a brass part, or if there are notes beyond the range of the musician. A professional writes ten notes that mean something, and leaves the other ninety notes for another chart. Too many people write in terms of volume, by writing 100 notes and hoping that ten of them will be good. Great art starts from a place of selectivity.
Panichi frequently alludes to the lessons he learned from his time in the BMI workshops with Brookmeyer:
Repetition and change are the most important variables in composition. The hardest thing in music is to know when to introduce change. Brookmeyer used to say, “Keep going in a particular direction until you think you’ve overdone it; then you can go somewhere else.”
What’s next for the leading big band composer and arranger in Australia today? Panichi wants to record his large-group music in New York with the cats he has played with for years. While he is an Australian, at the heart of his music is the New York jazz sound. As Panichi explains, wistfully, “There's more of a tradition in that style there.”
This article is published by Music & Literature