ZUILL BAILEY – A Conversation

On Telarc’s new release of the Bach Cello Suites
Cellist to appear at Yoshi’s, Wednesday, February 3rd

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

ZUILL BAILEY is considered one of the pre-eminent cellists of his generation. His rare combination of compelling artistry, technical finesse, and engaging personality has secured his place as one of the most sought-after cellists and recording artists today.
 A consummate concerto soloist, Bailey performs with the symphony orchestras of Chicago, San Francisco, Israel, Minnesota, Indianapolis, Dallas, Louisville, Honolulu, Milwaukee, Nashville, Toronto and Utah, among other leading orchestras around the world. Mr. Bailey performs on a 1693 Matteo Gofriller Cello, formerly owned by Mischa Schneider of the Budapest String Quartet. In addition to his extensive touring engagements, Bailey is the Artistic Director of El Paso Pro Musica, (Texas), Artistic Director designate of the Sitka Summer Music Festival and Series, (Alaska) and Professor of Cello at the University of Texas at El Paso. This coming Wednesday, February 3rd, he will appear at Yoshi’s San Francisco located at 1330 Fillmore near Eddy. This special event celebrates the release of his new CD from Telarc, Bach Cello Suites, and he will perform selections from them. In a recent conversation, I asked Mr. Bailey about the connection between Bach and a hot Jazz club. He said, “The jazz fans will be thinking off the charts, because the Bach Cello Suites is the greatest improvisation ever documented.”
Click here to purchase tickets: ZUILL BAILEY

Seán: I am overwhelmed by the beauty of the recording.

Zuill: I can’t thank you enough for saying that. This recording represents more to me than anything I’ve ever done. It’s such a personal journey. It’s literally taken me, so far, 37 years to figure this out. I’ve been working towards trying to understand how to get into the world of Bach since the very beginning. Especially the last six years. To finally have a documentation of this work is the thrill of my life.

Seán: Was there a point when you realized it was time to record this music? Or was it scheduled for this time frame? Where do you reach a point of satisfaction that you say to yourself, “OK! Now I’m going to put it out to the world because I can do it.”

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Zuill: I think that’s a loaded question. Cellists are never sure, anyway. Rostropovich waited until he was 70 to record it. When Pablo Casals was in his 90s he said, “I’ve finally figured out how to do this. Now I can’t play anymore.” He refused to put out an official edition because he kept changing his mind and going to different places. My view is that it was kind of happenstance. The world of Bach in the spiritual world of Bach really opened up to me around the age of 30. I’m 37 now and I’ve just started this deep journey with it not knowing I was going to be aligned with a record company like Telarc. It was like quicksand. I just kept being pulled deeper and deeper into it and started incorporating them more and more into my concerts, my daily practice, and daily life. When I did align with Telarc – one of the first things we all discussed was, “What about Bach?” And I was already up to my neck in it. And I said “Absolutely. But I need to do this in about a year and a half.” I really needed to go into that vein of not just being inspired by it, but really coming up with a viewpoint that I would stand beside in the long term. It goes back to that saying in the study: “One has to know where they’ve been to know where they’re going.” I did so much study about where Bach came from in all the scores. So, then – when I let go and went into my own world of thought with it – I knew where I was going because I knew where I had been.

Seán: The technical aspects of the music are completely daunting. As I listened to your recording, I got caught up in the melody of it all. When that happens, I launch into imagery. Because I cover the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and am a fan of competitive ice skating and now it’s all about the Ballet Season – I experience music such as these cello suites being employed in a variety of mediums. So, after you get past the technical parts – and the music is in your fingers and your brain and your soul – is there a picture that you play to? Do you have something like a story going on in your head?

Zuill: It sounds like we’re very similar in the way we view these things. One of the things that’s most difficult, I think, in the world of approaching these cello suites – is that there was no Bach Manuscript. What I mean by that is that he didn’t guide us with his markings and his direction as most composers do. So, cellists are always guessing as to articulation and technical aspects of these things because they’re not sure if that’s what they should be doing. A lot of times – I would say most of the time – at some point, it’s very difficult to get past the technical aspects because you’re so wound up with trying to decide it it’s indeed appropriate. I went one step further – and exactly like you’re saying – I learned to (quote) “play them” and be able to get my fingers into these pieces. I took them to other mediums. Immediately. I asked for the Fourth Suite, and the Fifth Suite. I had organists play it. For the Third Suite I had a guitarist play it for me. It took the cello out of it and I could hear the music as music. And, maybe / possibly, even as Bach would have envisioned it since he generally sat at the organ to create these works – where the cellist’s technical aspects didn’t limit it.

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ZUILL BAILEY, Cellist

Zuill:Then I went back and just let the music pour out of me and didn’t focus on the technical anymore. I feel that that really comes through, that you truly hear the music and don’t get caught up remotely in the technical aspect in this recording. That includes tempo, that includes gesture, that includes bowing. All the things that one would do. I think I kind-of pride myself on just simply stroking the music. To take it one step further – when you are able to just sit there and have the music be glowing and soaring, your mind is able to go anywhere. And imagery changes based on your mood. So, even when I listen to the Bach Cello Suites – if the music is pouring out purely – then my emotions and my insight can spin freely. So, the imagery is all there. And it changes everyday. Because it’s about the glory of Bach, not the glory of how it’s played on the cello.

Seán: Obviously there is going to be a difference in the performing experience when playing in front of an audience as opposed to a recording session in a studio where the musician might think, “I can always start over.” Do you have to do anything special to psyche yourself into the environment of a studio?

Zuill: No. As a matter of fact, I was just talking about this. The older I get and the deeper I get into this music – it becomes more and more personal. Quite frankly, when I play it, it’s like public therapy. It releases so many things inside of me that are actually very uncomfortable – to showcase what’s inside of me while people are watching.

Seán: You are personally exposed.

Zuill: Absolutely! And when you are personally exposed you are setting yourself up to be judged in a very daunting way – because you are opening up your heart and your soul. You’re just sitting there, reveling in it, and if someone is criticizing you – they feel this or that – it effects you. And you know that. It’s hard to feel open without feeling insecure. So, when I recorded the suites – for that very reason – it was like going into seclusion or even fasting. Your body and your mind and spirit changes, based on the environment you place yourself in. Where your mind wanders isn’t limited to anything or to distraction. So, I recorded them all in about one time period – in one week, in New York City. I just sat in an empty concert hall playing one suite each day. Just playing it. And seeing where my brain and my spirit and insides would go just simply living Bach. Each day. And knowing that all I would do at the end of the day is go home, sleep, and be back, and really have no communication with the outside world. That’s why, when I got to Number Six, which is the most technically daunting – it was both the victim and the victor of my fatigue. Number Six was written for the cello piccolo which is a five-stringed instrument. Based on the fact that a cello only has four strings, one has to show and reveal a technical prowess to simply play it. The issue is that it becomes a technical and virtuoso vehicle versus a singing symphony – because, on the cello picollo, it is not nearly as difficult and it’s just a great piece of music. So, I recorded it last. My arms felt like lead and my brain was broken. It’s kind-of like after you’ve broken through the proverbial wall in the marathon and you have that last inspiration where you don’t even feel your body anymore, those last few miles where you’re floating versus being very aware of things. When I sat down to record it I just felt like I was soaring rather than feeling the difficulty of it. I think that also comes through. It just sounds right. The tempos are settled, I’m just simply singing – versus showcasing.

Seán: In other words, your endorphins kicked-in and it became a celestial experience.

Zuill: And the Allemande of that suite is in many ways the showcase of that. It’s almost eleven minutes. When you sit there and listen to that – and when I played it – by the eighth minute, you’re in a complete fog and daze, both as performer and listener. Your brain has gone to a completely different place.

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ZUILL BAILEY. Photo, Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Seán: How long does it take to commit a movement such as that to memory?

Zuill: That reminds me of this wonderful snippet from a video I saw on Picasso. He took a glass panel and they showed him through it – so you’re looking at him as you would be the canvas. Then he took a black paint brush and painted a bull in about a minute. Someone asked him, “How do you justify that it took you a minute and a half to draw this and it’s priceless?” His response was, “It didn’t take me a minute and a half. It took me 87 years.” I’ve been playing these suites – and the Sixth Suite – for as long as I can remember. I don’t remember when that transition happened that it committed to memory. I’ve just been living it. It was just a part of the process where it became such a part of my fabric. It’s Me.

Seán: What do you do to take care of yourself? I understand what you’re saying about your energy – the arms getting heavy and the overall physical exhaustion of it. Do you have a regular routine, a regime, to get that physical strength in your arms?

Zuill: I prepared for this project very differently than I have any other project. I did this a year ago last December. I was playing them as a cycle, one sitting, a lot. I would play for three hours straight, no break, just feeling where my body would go. That became very normal for me. It’s like preparing for an ultra marathon. You just go out and run. That’s not normal because no concert is two-and-a-half or three hours long. Under normal circumstances I simply take care of myself by making sure that I’m balanced, take care of my muscles, make sure that I’m relaxed, that I have strength in my hands between constant playing or training each day. To do a monumental Mount Everest like this, it takes a monumental Mount Everest of preparation as well. That means I just played all day every day, for months, so that there would be no personal hit, no injury. And, secondly, that my body wouldn’t let me down in the eleventh hour.

Seán: You know that if you can survive a three-hour practice session you will endure a concert which is fifty percent that length.

Zuill: The shocking part about the recording process is that it’s not about one particular day, it’s about being able to do it and then do it again and then do it again. It’s literally like running a marathon seven days in a row.

Seán: Tell me about your appearance at Yoshi’s on February 3rd. What will you be playing?

Zuill: What I’m going to do with these performances is just open myself up and explain to the audience and show why these are called “The Cellist’s Musical Bible”. Why these living pieces have evolved to be the hallmark of cello playing, why they are so singularly important to the cellist and also revered by musicians in general. I’m going to showcase a couple of suites, maybe three, and play six different movements from the suites to give swatches of examples with this behind-the-scenes of why and how it all works. It’s going to be a performance, but it’s really going to be a ‘why I live Bach everyday’.

Seán: I think the crowd is going to be totally turned-on by this experience. Yoshi’s is a wonderful environment, but one that might not necessarily anticipate an artist such as yourself. I’m sure your fans will go anywhere to see you. I’m also sure that the unknowing tourists and Yoshi’s regulars and die-hard jazz enthusiasts will be captivated by you as well.

Zuill: There’s an argument on the table now with scholars and others that Bach wasn’t a composer – he was an improviser. The jazz fans will be thinking off the charts, because the Bach Cello Suites is the greatest improvisation ever documented.

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BACH & BAILEY

Seán: Not to extend too much flattery here, but you are a very compelling artist – including in the visual sense. There’s a lot happening as we watch you play. I recently attended a fabulous organ concert at Davies Symphony Hall given by Paul Jacobs. The repertoire allowed Mr. Jacobs to display his incredible skills and he demonstrated the fullness of the Rufatti organ. But, as a dedicated fan of organ music, I recognize there’s not much to latch onto in the visual department and, thus, it’s a harder sell for some audiences. Given the passion of the lengthy single-instrument Bach Suites and in tandem with your own very attractive visual stuff – how much does Image really contribute toward acceptance and popularity?

Zuill: I understand. But, let’s first talk about the cello and how it is presented to the audience. The cello is a very sensual instrument first and foremost. As a performer, it’s one of the only instruments you wrap your arms around. You encase, you engulf the instrument. Everything about it is very sensual. Also, the cellist is one of the only instrumentalists that is the exact polar opposite of an organist. And witnessing this musical exchange first hand – with eye contact and communication with the audience – because you’re facing front. Violinists face to the side, pianists face to the side, conductors face the opposite way, organists face the opposite way. There is absolutely no hindrance in communication with a cellist and an audience. I think that, right there, creates a connection that is very inspiring. I think if a person, a performer, is very comfortable with themselves and – fast as possible – connect with the audience, then it’s invigorating. Meaning, connect with the audience both in a visual and communicatively musical way, then there’s nothing greater. I’m kind-of avoiding your question. The thing that’s interesting, maybe, about what I bring to the table, visually, is that it breaks the stereotype, possibly, of what a Classical musician stereo-typically looks like.

Seán: That’s it!

Zuill: A lot of people come up to me and say, “I can’t believe you play the cello” or “I had no idea that ….” Maybe that added attraction – and I don’t mean attraction to me – but that added interest, brings people into the concert hall as any visually interesting thing brings us to anything. We are inundated each day with visual things. We gravitate toward things we identify with or that are interesting looking.

Seán: I have to admit that when I was a young man and studying opera, I latched onto Beverly Sills who was just then emerging on the scene. Her strong personality and incredible vitality was the cause of my becoming increasingly interested in the composers whose works she performed and recorded, particularly the operas of Jules Massenet. The broader knowledge I gained along the way is due to my initial fascination with her – and a rather select bunch of other celebrities. I’m not the musician who goes to the composer first. My interest gets sparked by the performer. But, getting back to the subject of Image and standing in line with others who want to ask, “How does a guy like you wind up in a job like this?” – what do you do to work on that part of The Business which is pre-occupied with “Image”? Do you go to a gym? Do you run? Do you swim? Let me have it.

Zuill: You’re going to hate me. I do nothing.

Seán: [falling in laughter] I’m not hearing this!

Zuill: I do nothing. I don’t go to the gym, I don’t run. I eat poorly – meaning, I eat what I eat on the road. I grew up in a musical family. Whatever I look like – that’s just whatever it is. I started when I was four. Music was what my parents introduced me to along with hundreds of other possible interests. I played soccer, I did art, I went to concerts with them. My sister’s a violinist. The cello was just this thing that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. People always ask me, “Should I go into music?” My response is, “Probably not.” I felt like I never had a choice because it grabbed me so hard that I couldn’t imagine any other life than this life. As far as marketing and all this other stuff – the thing I worry most about is trying to bring Class to our profession. And what that means, is that I’m not trying to be Pop-oriented. I enjoy wearing a suit. I enjoy wearing things that are classy and sleek – in that sense not bringing attention to me – but just being very clean. I’m also an advocate of taking photos frequently – to document my age. I’m not trying to look like I was in my early 20s. I’m not trying to look like I did three years ago.

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Zuill:The photos taken for the boxed CD were those that represented my feeling – my feeling – of the classiness and the historic nature of the Bach Suites. Not to showcase what I look like in a suit, or what will sell more records. It just so happens, though, the pictures come off well because they are timeless. There’s a picture on the front of the CD of me in a suit, because this is my respect to these suites. I’m not trying to play to the younger crowd or to the older crowd. There’s a picture on the back of the CD of me playing my cello, by myself, in the outdoors kind of solitary. I was actually playing Bach. That picture was taken by a person up in Sitka, Alaska. I thought – that represents how I feel about these Bach suites. It wasn’t done to make it look like anything other than that. The picture inside is an actual live picture of me playing the Fifth Suite at one of my concerts. As far as marketability? Maybe it will help. More importantly, it’s how I want to represent the music and myself. I’m not looking for the schtick. Because schticks don’t last.

Seán: That’s for sure. I have to say that the recording has a sense of intimacy. I am drawn absolutely into the music. Every now and then I hear you breathe on a phrase. The effect is like sitting next to you. And it doesn’t hurt that you are very easy on the eyes, etc. So, I have to laugh at my notion of how you take care of yourself.

Zuill: I do take care of myself. I try to eat the best I can. It’s kind-of a joke when one travels and has to eat out every meal. You’re having steak and potatoes, trying not to eat this, trying not to eat that. And the fact is – I’d rather be sleeping! This woman came up to me last night after the concert and said the greatest thing, “I took your CD and put it on in my house, at a mid to lower-level volume, on Repeat. I had the greatest day of my life. I just couldn’t stop listening to it. It made me and my day better.” This is why I do it. This music makes me better. The fact is, we’ve documented this inspiration and it is helping others. I could die a happy man.

Seán: One last question. Your recording, Russian Masterpieces, with Conductor Martin West. I think he is such a gift to the San Francisco Ballet. He has a great sense of the theatrical elements in the score. As you worked with him, did he draw out some theatricality in you that was different or new?

Zuill: First of all, Martin West is a cellist. We were in heaven making that recording. We were both viscerally involved in bringing the Shostakovich to life. With the Tschaikovsky – that’s ballet music! – it was a dream as well. He is so used to bringing, as you say, this drama and character and gesture to his work. We went with it, hand-in-hand, together. So, I am very happy with the intensity and the fervor as well as the lyricism in this music because it is perfectly appropriate. As they say for Broadway, “You have to forecast it over the footlights.” We had an incredible producer, Adam Abeshouse, who said, “Go for it. I’ll get it.”

Seán: Is there a DVD associated with the Bach Cello Suites?

Zuill: There is an EPK on-line where I talk about the recording. A lot of the sessions were filmed, so probably within the next six months we’re going to release snippets of them – just for fun, so people can see how it was done.

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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