‘A Really Cool Gig’: Playing Piano for Bob Dylan’s Nobel Lecture
By BEN SISARIOJUNE 7, 2017
The jazz pianist Alan Pasqua, who played in Bob Dylan’s band in the 1970s, provided the soundtrack for the songwriter’s Nobel Prize lecture. Weimin Huang
When Bob Dylan’s Nobel lecture was released on Monday, the transcript was accompanied by an audio recording of Mr. Dylan reading his speech with an unusual sonic touch: jazzy piano chords floating in the background.
To some listeners (O.K., me), it recalled the piano-and-conversation interviews by Steve Allen, the former “Tonight Show” host, conveying midcentury sophistication and perhaps some kitsch.
There was no credit for the accompanist, but the next day, the jazz pianist Alan Pasqua revealed on Facebook that he had played the part. For Dylan fans, it was intriguing: Mr. Pasqua played briefly in Mr. Dylan’s band in the late 1970s, and appears on two albums, “Street-Legal” (1978) and the live album “Bob Dylan at Budokan” (1979). Since then, Mr. Pasqua has become a professor at the University of Southern California and played with Elton John, Aretha Franklin, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette and Joe Henderson, among many others — but not Mr. Dylan, until now.
On Wednesday, Mr. Pasqua spoke by phone from Santa Monica, Calif., about getting the call from Fortress Dylan, making the recording on his Steinway concert grand and channeling Mr. Allen. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Bob Dylan 2016 Nobel Lecture in Literature
Bob Dylan 2016 Nobel Lecture in Literature Video by Nobel Prize
So how did you come to play the piano on Dylan’s speech?
I got a voice mail from Bob’s business manager. I chuckled. “Wow, maybe I’m going back on tour!”
So I called back, and he said, “Have you ever watched those old clips of Steve Allen interviewing people, when he plays the piano?” And I was like, yeah! And he said, “Well, we need some of that kind of music.” You know, not really melodic, not cocktail, not super jazzy, but sort of background-y piano music.
He said, “We need it tomorrow morning.”
When was this?
This was last Thursday. So I went to my home studio, put together two minutes of music and sent it off. Ten minutes later I got a call saying: “This is totally what we’re looking for. Bob loves it.”
I spent the better part of the day just playing. It was a really joyful process. I had total freedom. But on the other hand, I had a lot of boundaries and restrictions. I sent the music on Friday.
Did you know what it was for?
All I knew at that point is that it was a spoken-word thing that Bob was doing. I had a hunch it might have something to do with the Nobel. When I sent it to the business manager, I said, “Can you fill me in on what I’m doing here?” He said, “Yeah, this is for Bob’s speech for the Nobel.” I was like, “Oh God, what an honor!” I just thought it was a really cool gig.
Did you have access to the speech while you were working?
I did not.
How much music did you record?
They wanted 30 minutes. I decided that rather than give them one 30-minute block, it would probably be more beneficial to do smaller chunks. So I did five- to six-minute pieces. I sent them half a dozen of those.
I was treating it almost as a movie score. There has to be interest in the musical content, but it could not compete with Bob’s speech, his words. And I also thought about the sound of his voice, and where on the piano I should be playing so it wouldn’t be competing with him sonically.
It’s like accompanying a singer, except on this he’s speaking. Same deal.
You were in Mr. Dylan’s band in 1978. Is this the first time you’ve worked with him since then?
Yes. I think there were a couple of really roundabout things that may have happened between now and then, but that’s pretty foggy. I was a good friend of Steve Douglas, who was the saxophone player in Bob’s band back then. We did some things, but I never recorded anything else for Bob that was ever released.
What was it like to get the call after almost 40 years?
It was as unpredictable as me getting a call to audition for him in the first place. My first gig out of college was playing with Tony Williams, Miles Davis’s drummer. While we were rehearsing at S.I.R. Studios in New York, I met a guy in the hallway named Rob Stoner, who was Bob’s bass player. We started talking and became buds. Later Rob called, and said: “I’m starting to put together a band for an upcoming tour. Why don’t you come over and play for a little while, and I’ll give Bob a tape.” That’s how it all started.
Do you think this could lead to more work with Mr. Dylan?
I have no idea.