Feature Interview May/June...Frank Caruso
in his own words... Frank Caruso
Chicagoan Frank Caruso has played piano professionally since he was twelve. He studied at DePaul University and served in the U.S. Navy Band in Washington D.C. While still in the service, he was a featured performer at the White House Birthday Party for Duke Ellington, and has played for President Nixon, President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and Senator John McCain. He has performed for thousands of private and public events and appeared with famous artists. Caruso performed with Luciano Pavarotti in concert at the United Center and has appeared with legends such as Henry Mancini, Louie Bellson, Steve Gadd, Herbie Hancock, Billy Joel, Maynard Ferguson, Dave Douglas and the Count Basie Orchestra. He also has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia for jazz and pops concerts. Most recently performed the soundtrack form Lord of the Rings/Reign of the King at Ravinia with the CSO.
In addition to his artistry on keyboard instruments, Caruso has served as music contractor and conductor for many recordings and live shows.
Eddie Gomez, Frank Caruso, Bob Rummage
during a recent recording session.
Caruso performed music for many radio and TV commercials and also composed for his solo album, Freefall. Caruso recorded with Randy Brecker for River North Records. His other jazz quintet albums include: Mango Tango and Heart of the City—both in collaboration with saxophonist Mark Colby (a Conn-Selmer clinician) and Songs From The Kingdom Of Jazz with saxophonist Jim Massoth. In 2012 he recorded a project with legendary bassist Eddie Gomez. most recently recorded a trio project with Bob Rummage and Eddie Gomez. His recent book Piano Improvisation: A Powerful, Practical System explains his system for improvisation.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: When did you get started in music?
Frank Caruso: I think I was six or seven when I started taking music lessons. My parents couldn’t afford a piano so I started out on accordion. I had some really good music teachers along the way. One of them particularly was a great accordion player named Vince Geraci—he was a great teacher. He insisted that I study with him when I was about fourteen or fifteen. He taught me a lot of stuff about theory—stuff I needed to learn. After that, I went to Notre Dame High School in Niles. They had a good jazz program. Father Wiskirchen was in charge of the Melodons, a nationally recognized high school jazz band. Jim McNeely from the Village Vanguard Orchestra played in that band, and so did Jim Pankow and a lot of really good players. I was always around a lot of really good musicians, and started gigging professionally when I was about fourteen or fifteen. Guys would pick me up and take me to gigs because I knew a lot of tunes.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Had you switched to piano by then?
Caruso: No. I didn’t switch to piano until I went to college, so I really didn’t start playing piano until I was seventeen or eighteen, but I never really had a problem. A lot of good players––George Shearing, for instance––started out on accordion, and Art Tatum played accordion for a long time, and Larry Novak. At that time in our society, people who could afford pianos were generally upper middle-class––that’s just the way it was.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: When you transitioned, was learning the left hand the toughest part?
Caruso: Yeah, that’s a given, but you just overcome it. Then I went to DePaul University for a couple of years in music school. I was actually disillusioned with the whole process, because at that time DePaul didn’t have a Jazz Studies program––it was traditional harmony and doing a lot of assigned papers and stuff, and at that age I just wanted to play.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Were you into jazz music at the time?
Caruso: Oh yeah. People who knew me at a very young age said I was predisposed to jazz music. There are certain things you just can’t take credit for. So from there I auditioned for the Navy band, the Commodores, in Washington D.C., which was really good duty.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: It was a good alternative to fighting.
Caruso: Yeah, it really was. Aside from that, there were great players there. I played with Steve Gadd, the late Joel DiBartolo—he was in the Tonight Show Band as the bass player for a long time. Stan Mark was our lead trumpet player—he played lead with Maynard Ferguson. That place was just crawling with really good young players. I would have had to go on the road with Buddy’s or Woody’s or Maynard’s band to get the experience I got there. Our staff arranger was Jay Chattaway. He has done several soundtracks. He did the soundtrack for The Silver Bullet (Stephen King) and he produced a couple of albums with Maynard Ferguson. It was like being a studio musician for the government.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: So, in the Navy band you don’t just play John Phillip Souza marches?
Caruso: Oh, no. My job was the piano player for the big band, and some combo stuff. I was the guy that they would call first for jazz stuff—even when I was in the Navy. After I got out of the Navy I came to Chicago and did a couple hotel band things and a couple jingles. I became disillusioned with the business, so I quit playing for ten years and lived in the desert in Arizona—nobody could find me. I lived a couple of miles from the Colorado River and I just checked out for a long time.
Caruso performing in the Navy Band: Washington D.C. Commodores, circa 1970
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What was it that was disillusioning?
Caruso: I wasn’t playing as high a level of music as I played in the Navy; I was doing a lot of jobbing. It wasn’t the same. I just wanted to get away from it, so I did. I came back in 1983, and started getting calls for gigs right away.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: So when you were in Arizona, you weren’t woodshedding?
Caruso: No, I basically quit playing. I learned a lot of things about life I hadn’t learned, because I was always a musician since I was a kid. I felt like I was just out there hacking tunes out. They would say to me, “Play this tune.” I go, “I don’t know this tune.” They said, “Just play it––the second time around you’ll catch it.” But that was actually a great way to learn. I was fortunate the older guys would take me under their wing. I was playing with really good players, but the gig situations weren’t right. I didn’t feel right about what I was doing. Shortly after I was back, I recorded a solo project for a new acoustic label and did an album called Free Fall. It was getting heavy radio play, but they didn’t want to send me out. And then I met Mark Colby and we started recording. We did two or three projects. Two of them were not released, including one we did with Randy Brecker. But the first recording we did, Mango Tango, got really good airplay; and then we did Heart of the City for a local record company that had distribution with Polygram. They asked us for a cover a tune—we did “It’s Probably Me,” a Sting tune—and it was the most “added on” instrumental in the country right out of the box. But they also dropped the ball––they wouldn’t hook us up with Polygram management, for whatever reason.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You don’t have a high opinion of record companies then.
Caruso: Well, not those! [laughs]
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Let’s get back to this whole Arizona thing. Why did you choose Arizona?
Caruso: My wife’s parents owned land out in Arizona and they flew us out in February. It was sixty degrees and balmy. And I came back to Chicago, and it was cold and rainy, snowy, so I said, “Let’s do it.” I learned a lot out there because I was away from music. At first it was difficult—not playing, not hanging with the musicians. But being isolated like that, I started to examine music from a slightly different perspective—not as reactionary, but in a more mature way. I started listening to things other than what everyone was pumping out all the time—and had time to think about things, which I hadn’t done previously, because I was always working gigs. The thing is, when you are a musician, you actually keep playing music in your mind even though you aren’t playing it. I learned how to become more self-sufficient. So it was good from that standpoint.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did that time contribute to your music concept and theory and your ideas of arranging?
Caruso: Definitely. When you are away from it, you get time to think more personally and you have time to listen to other people more. That was an important developmental time in my life. The funny thing, as soon as I got back to Chicago, everyone started putting me to work right away, so I was very fortunate. When I came back I had four children, and eventually had seven, so you have to play a lot of songs to pay for seven kids––you can’t be turning down gigs! [laughs] But through all that, I kept that spark of jazz—it never got lost. And I had some great opportunities. I played with the Basie Band at the Regal Theater when they came to town in 1988. Tee Carson, who replaced Basie, went back to the West Coast for something family related. Frank Foster called Bobby Ojeda, and said we are going to Chicago and need a guy who can play the book. And he said, “Call Frank Caruso.” I had done a lot of that stuff in the Navy. So I did two shows, and Sonny Cohn, the manager, said, “Hey, do you want to come with us?” And I said, “Yeah man, but I can’t.” I couldn’t leave my family for forty weeks a year. Then, when Maynard Ferguson came through, Rob Parton asked me to play with them at New Trier High School. So I have gotten a chance to play with some big people, but it extends beyond jazz. I got to play an accordion solo with Luciano Pavarotti in 1998 at the United Center. He had a big, beautiful voice. I was standing three feet from him, thinking: Man, this can’t be happening!
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Was there classical and opera music in the house when you were growing up?
Caruso: Well, my parents didn’t really listen to music per se. But my teachers showed me a lot. Joe Vito was the one who got me that job. He really wanted me to have a chance to play with Pavarotti. I kept the fact that I was a good accordion player
Caruso with legendary drummer Louie Bellson
photo by Bill Klewitz
secret, because I liked to play piano. Joe Vito was a really extraordinary person—he was one of those people that made sure you got opportunities that he thought you should have.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Tell us about Joe Vito.
Caruso: Well, there’s a guy who knew opera. I talked to Joe virtually every day on the phone for thirty years, so when he passed it was hard. I think Joe Vito was responsible for putting many Chicago musicians to work and into positions based on their talent. That’s very rare; most guys are trying to just cover themselves. For instance, when I played for Pavarotti, Joe called and said, “Frank. I’ve got an accordion gig for you in January. I will be out of town” And I said, “ I’m open, where is it?” And he said, “The United Center.” I told him I like playing accordion, but I don’t want to play for people walking into a basketball game. And he said, “No—it’s for Pavarotti!” [laughs] He was that kind of a guy. And that performance was bumped to February, so he could have done the gig himself, but he never said one word. He wanted me to do it. You don’t often run into people like that. So, in my life, I really do try to provide opportunities for guys that are really talented and work hard. But he was in the business when a lot was going on, so he could actually do it. Great guy. When I went to Italy with my son, he showed up as a surprise, in the hotel room next to ours. Who does stuff like that? Just a great human being and a wonderful musician.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Your talent and his went in similar directions, in terms of being able to do a broad variety of things. For starters, you both played accordion and piano.
Caruso: Yeah, that’s true. In fact, he wife is letting me use his accordion since his passing. I should probably do a jazz accordion album sometime. Don Stille and I have talked about that, but we haven’t put our heads together on that yet. We did a couple of things at the Marion Street Cheese Market in Oak Park. We had a ball. I told him we’ve got to go in the studio, and he said, “Let me know, man.” Don Stille is a wonderful musician. So is Larry Novak—I think Larry got me the gig with Henry Mancini at Ravinia. So guys have really helped me out a lot, and put me in the right places.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: One of the common themes in your articles that appear in Chicago Jazz Magazine is improvisation. Do you consider that to be one of your strengths, to be able to teach people how to improvise?
Caruso: Yes, I’ve been an educator at the college level with local students for probably forty years now. I’ve been very successful at simplifying improvisation for people, and to get them to not be afraid to play ideas, because that’s a drawback. One of the things with art is you discover things you already know. That’s just the way it is. I’ll tell students, “We are going to discover what you already hear, what you can already play.” That helps them realize what it is. That’s the best thing you can do for a student.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: How did you develop your own improvisational skills?
Caruso: To be honest, none of my teachers could play jazz as well as I did. I played with other jazz players—guys like Richie Fudoli and Joe Daley, and some guitar players in town who were really good improvisers—and I picked up stuff from them. But I was really self-taught. Other teachers taught the rudiments of music. You can’t be a really good jazz player unless you have that stuff under your fingers.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: So you took your knowledge and skills that you learned in other genres of music, analyzed what you were improvising, and came up with a way to share it with other people?
Caruso: Exactly. But my first book deals basically with learning how to play blues, because that’s how most people are introduced to some sort of improvisational skill. The rest deals with playing 2-5-1 [IIm7-V7-Imaj7] progressions in all twelve keys. That’s how I teach at the college level too, because if you don’t have that, you really don’t have anything—that’s the base.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Of all the books out there on piano and improvisation, what makes yours different?
Caruso: Mine is different. I have to say this with caution because I haven’t seen every book that is out there, but my book focuses mainly on the basic 2-5-1 progressions and how chords are constructed. In other words, chord changes are incomplete scales. I also include all the fingerings in every single exercise—that’s where all the work comes in. That’s where guys get lost, because if you say, Okay, let’s play a 2-5-1 in Ab or Gb, they just don’t know the fingering.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: For the layman, explain a 2-5-1 progression.
Caruso: Those are the basic chords that precede a chord that you resolve to. The first primary chord that resolves to a one-chord [I-chord] if the key you are in is a five-chord [V7-chord], which is a dominant-seventh chord, and a two chord [II-chord] is a minor-seventh chord. It’s basic stuff that can be applied to any scale. I didn’t get into minor scales in my first book; that will be in my second book. Once the student sees that those chords are structured in any given any scale, and they start to understand the simple science. They always say “Oh, so that’s how that works.” For playing musicians it’s no big deal but people learning to improvise find it very helpful.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: When you say, “resolve,” you mean that anyone listening intuitively knows that a particular musical phrase is complete.
Caruso: Exactly. There’s no better way to put it: We’ve arrived somewhere; maybe we will go somewhere else, but we’ve arrived somewhere. But, I thought it was important for students to get over that hurdle first. And people find me online and I send a book out to them, so I guess that there is still a buzz about it, even though it’s been five years.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: With the fingerings, it’s written for piano, but can someone playing another instrument benefit from your book?
Caruso: Yeah, any instrument could use it to get a foundation in how to make the changes, actually for any kind of jazz or pop tune. With the horn players they will have to do some transposing, but the information is there.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What would you tell an aspiring musician about improvisation?
Caruso: Improvisation deals in two areas. There are intuitive things that people naturally hear, and you never want to study improvisation from a standpoint where you suppress that knowledge. You want to educate that knowledge. So if you do play something or sing something or write something that’s interesting, you are able to analyze it with information from my book so you can use it in other places. The other thing is, all we are doing is helping you discover what you already hear—because it doesn’t live in the science. The science is important, but it lives somewhere in your head. Now, let’s say you can play something in the key of C, F, Bb, and Eb. Well, what if you are playing a tune where you have to play something in Gb or Db to make the changes, like “Joy Spring” or something like that? You’re stuck, because you haven’t studied the science behind how that is constructed. That’s really what the book deals with from a general standpoint.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Do you have a favorite jazz genre?
Caruso: I can’t say that I do. I love bebop, but I also love playing the Basie stuff, because I grew up on that. I like a lot of the stuff that was contemporary in the eighties and nineties—it wasn’t too much against the grain. I’m not crazy about against-the-grain music, which is becoming popular. That’s just personal; people can play whatever they want to play.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Explain “against the grain” for us.
Caruso: You’re constantly playing dissonantly; you’re playing in 7/4, or always in odd time signatures; or you’re just constantly playing outside the changes and never coming back. There’s a place for that, but there should be a balance. I don’t particularly enjoy going to a concert and listening to someone free associate for an hour and a half. I’d rather hear something that has a basis in other principles of music.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Would it be fair to say the music you like has an emotional appeal, whereas the dissonant, technical music has a more cerebral appeal?
Caruso: I guess so. It’s like what Duke Ellington said: “If it sounds good, it’s good.” Even if it’s outside, if it sounds good, it’s good. But if it doesn’t sound good, we have to ask: Why are we listening to this? Why are we subjecting ourselves to that? A person playing out of tune or not “making the changes”—it doesn’t fly with me. But I’m an older guy.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Who are the people who did it best over the decades?
Caruso: Gosh, that’s a lot of people. On piano, I always listened to Oscar Peterson when I was young. Then I grew into McCoy Tyner’s type of playing—it was more energetic and very modal, but good. Chick Corea did a lot for me because he is a very intelligent musician and a really great piano player. I loved a lot of the stuff the Basie band and Duke Ellington did. Stan Getz—I never heard him play where he didn’t sound great. I say that type of playing was what I really enjoyed. As far as arrangers: Bill Holman, Billy Byers, Gil Evans, Bobby Brookmeyer, Jim McNeely , Nelson Riddle, Johnny Mandel, Victor Garcia and Don Sobesky along with others. As far as singers, I loved Ella, Sarah, Roberta Gamberini, Carmen McRae and Shirley Horn—not a great voice, but a great interpreter. And Miles is always part of the deal—he just really did a lot. Bill Evans, Dizzy, James Moody, the list just goes on and on.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Would you say those people all have something in common?
Caruso: Yeah, they all play or sing with a really good time feel. The music grabbed a part of the soul—the part of people’s souls that should be communicated with.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You mentioned some vocalists. Do you adjust your playing when working with a vocalist?
Caruso: Accompanying, in my opinion, is the highest art form that a musician can be involved in, especially pianists. The main thing is you are constantly using all your skills and knowledge to make the person singing sound as good as they can, and to make them as comfortable as they can be. Singing takes a lot of courage. I could never sing; I don’t have that kind of courage. I mean, I don’t have a great voice [laughs], but that’s a really special skill to be a great accompanist. It is a very mature, knowledgeable and perceptive way of playing if you do it correctly. Don’t leave Herbie Hancock or Michael Brecker or Rich Fudoli out of the list of musicians I listened to a lot. Rich Fudoli had a major impact on my development as a jazz player. Steve Gadd is one of my favorite drummers. In fact, I almost had him on this last project with Eddie Gomez. I got real close, but he was going to Japan and New York. I had been talking to him for the last six months, and I was going to split the session between him and Bob Rummage. Bob Rummage played perfectly on the recording. I want to make sure I don’t leave anyone out. I used to listen to a lot of guitar players—Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell. Bob Rummage is really a great musician, very underrated, really a great drummer. John McLean is a fabulous musician—very sensitive and knows everything you could possibly know—he sounds great all the time. John Moulder And Fareed Haque are also in my list if inspirational musicians. The list is too large to remember all the names of my favorites. Phil Woods, Woody Shaw, Clifford Brown, Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Cobb, Philly Joe Jones. It’s virtually endless. I also listen to a lot of classical music for inspiration. I have had the opportunity of playing with the CSO at Ravinia several times. Last time was the soundtrack performance of Lord of the Rings: Reign of the King. Great orchestra with great musicians.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Those musicians all possess the qualities you just described?
Caruso: Oh yeah. It’s gotta be a perfect time feel. There can’t be any messing around with the time stuff. When I came up, I listened to Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones and Jimmy Cobb. Tony Williams was more innovative, but he was great. Elvin Jones—I like how he would go from one side of the beat to the other and never lose the groove. When I was young I played with Harold Jones, who played in Basie’s band. Jack DeJohnette is among the guys I listened to a lot.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You mentioned Eddie Gomez.
Caruso: Eddie Gomez is the consummate artist. He does things on an acoustic bass, which are virtually impossible. He plays two arco solos on my latest recording project [not yet released] that are gorgeous. He did one on the melody on “Django,” and he did another one on “Folks Who Live on the Hill”—it was just great. He was playing Marlene Rosenberg’s Pullmon bass, which he requested. You have to hear the album. When I play jazz, I like to play every note. And Eddie is like that—he’s really a great musician.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Have Eddie and drummer Bob Rummage ever worked together before?
Caruso: Bob did a couple tracks with Eddie a while back, but that was quartet stuff; this was trio. Eddie told me a few times that he really enjoyed playing with Bob and that he was a great player. And these guys—they don’t pass out compliments. I think Eddie had a good time. In fact, he asked if he could take that “Django” track home with hi