The quintet's latest album, Not for Nothin', has been nominated for a Grammy, and the same album is Downbeat magazine's record of the year. Do you find that all of these awards infringe on your time and energy and cause you to compromise your music in any way?
On the contrary, it has increased our opportunities to play, and it's good to know that people are enjoying the music, because after all, that's what it's all about, isn't it? It has also opened up doors for the big band that I record and tour with.
Your quintet is the nucleus of that band?
Yes, we started the big band in the summer of 2000. It was the year that I was the invitational artist at the Montreal Festival, and for one of the five classes that I taught, we decided to put on the big band, and that's how we got started. It was recorded and the record came out last year, so that's the second project, although the main touring involves the small group.
You listened to a lot of Duke Ellington. Is he your major influence?
Yes, he was definitely an influence, he and Billy Strayhorn, who did a lot of the writing and arranging for the band. Other people that I've listened to and have been influenced are Thad Jones and Kenny Wheeler, the Canadian trumpet player who lives in England. But I would have to say that my greatest influence was Charles Mingus.
I have to be honest. A lot of the time it's difficult to tell where Mingus is coming from.
[Laughs] Yes, but does the music get to you? People worry too much about understanding the music, rather than just letting the music reach their emotions. I don't think that you need to worry about how it works. If it touches you, that's the main thing. Just let it affect you.
Miles Davis lured you away from London in 1968?
Well, I wouldn't put it quite that way. He came to London and recruited me to play in his band. I always wanted to come to New York, and I moved there and have been a resident since then. The fact that Miles gave me the opportunity to move to New York with a gig was beyond anything that I ever expected.
Who was playing in the group at that time?
That would be Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, and Miles. There was a lot of recording going on in the two and a half years I was in the band.
When do you find time to compose? It seems that you're on the road all the time.
Yes, I'm on the road a lot, and I do some writing when I'm traveling. But I mainly find the time when I'm at home. It's just a matter of making time, really. I have always traveled, even before I had my own group; I've always been a musician that toured a lot. So I'm used to that lifestyle. We're on the road seven months out of the year, not continuously but spread throughout the year.
Is New York the hub of the jazz universe?
It certainly is a scene that people watch a lot. There is a very special community of musicians in New York who are doing a lot of wonderful things. I know that speaking for myself, I was always looking to see what was coming out of America, but there are a lot of other influences coming to the music. There are musicians putting together a lot of things. For instance, music from Bulgaria with Coltrane influences; they're coming up with their own thing. It's fascinating to me.
You have a very special relationship with your record label, ECM. You've been with them for 30 years. That's unheard of in the music business.
ECM is a rather special label. That label has really been an ideal form for me. I'm close friends with the head of the label, Manfred Eicher. We met at a stage in our lives when we were both trying to put together some ideas of what we wanted to do. His [interest] was in the record-company industry and mine was musical. He gives me absolute freedom in the things that I want to do. We've developed a very nice and trusting relationship over the years, and I've managed to record almost all of my written music with him, and I'm very happy to have it there because they stand behind their catalog. They keep it available; even some of the early work that I did is still readily available - maybe not in a music store but directly from the company. That to me is so important because it represents a documentation of what we're doing.
It's so tragic sometimes. The artist puts so much into their work only to find after a year or two their record has been discontinued because they don't have strong ongoing sales. ECM is a record company that has some very high standards; I'm very glad to be associated with them.