Smashingly Excellent Timing – A Peek into Peter Kogan’s World

peter kogan 1

The academic teachings that go into the career of a symphony orchestra musician only whet Peter Kogan’s appetite for something much more freeing…like jazz. The former Assistant Principal of Timpani and Principal Percussion of the Pittsburgh Symphony has continued in the symphonic vein but has also taken a sharp turn to jazz, forming both a quartet and septet. His first CD of original jazz compositions came on the scene in 2013, and his latest project called “The Green Album” is full of his signature inventive mastery of the sticks that skip and skitter, pulse and push. The campy track “Mooche” slinks around with a great sense of humor and fun, while Kogan’s drum intro on “Fools Blues” sets up the song brilliantly for a thick, sonorous solo by sax (then trumpet); their richness cut just right by Kogan’s sibilant crashes punctuating his light beat. “Honolulu” is really pretty and sweet, remarkable because each of the various solos throughout the song glow without gimmickry or pretense. Also on the CD is a gorgeous and hip version of “Con Alma” that is to fall in love by.

How has your symphony experience influenced the jazz musician you are today?

I am sure there is an indirect but palpable influence. Years of playing and listening to long-form through-composed symphonic music probably influenced my compositions. Many have shapes that are not 32-bar song forms, or I’ll have a blowing section that uses the material (the harmony) of the tune but not an exact repetition of the chords of the head.

I try to follow wherever the material leads me. When it does come out as a standard form, like my tune “Miles Back” from “The Green Album” I’m surprised and delighted! I love the blues and had the joy of playing with some of the old – timers like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Honeyboy Edwards. So my tune – FOOLS BLUES – is a standard 12-bar form. On the other hand, the opening tune – “BMW Blues Evolution” – is an expansion of blues form and is 26 bars long. 

As far as playing the drums goes, my years in the orchestra gave me a sense of how the great composers used the percussion instruments as colors to enhance the melodic and harmonic materials, and the timpani as a more structural emphasis – almost always reinforcing the big cadences like V – I [ like G7 – C]. But time-keeping is still the foundation, of course!  

Can you imagine a place for the timpani in a jazz ensemble?

Not really – although Elvin Jones used it wonderfully. I have yet to conceive of a place for it in my music.

Why have you made percussion your primary instrument?

Love of rhythm even though I’m a terrible dancer. Good groove is an incredible high. Enhancing the melodic with non-pitch sonority and drive. I love the tactile feel of the sticks on the drum. (I could never play guitar because I don’t enjoy plucking the strings!) 

What is the inspiration behind “The Green Album” and what does the name refer to?

In some ways the album is a completion of a mixture of new material and older pieces that never came to light when I was in my 30’s, an end piece to a trilogy that began with my earlier albums “Cornucopia” and “Some Monsterful Wonderthing.” Those had a blue and a red cover, so I thought this one should feature green – I’m not being completely facetious! The tune “Honolulu” is named for where it was written and was originally titled “Evergreen” – meaning music is always freshly renewing…that’s the theme.

peter kogan cd cover

What’s the most interesting percussion instrument or accessory you regularly use?

I’m using a standard kit with lots of cymbals, but I have some really old red wooden temple blocks I use on Duke Ellington’s “The Mooche.”

How long was this album in the making?

The first tracks were recorded in May of 2017 and the last track was recorded August 1, 2018. Many of the tunes were written or arranged and tried out in the previous few years.

What was the highlight of producing it?

Listening back to the takes and admiring the work of the 15 musicians who participated in the project.

Do the songs interrelate- tell a story- or are they discrete entities? 

There are some songs related to specific events. For example, the tunes “Slippery Slope” and “Miles Back” were both written very quickly just after the 2016 election and reflect my feelings at the time. “Honolulu” was written during a break from my years as a drummer in NYC when I worked with the Honolulu Symphony for a few months. Some tribute tunes relate to great jazz masters like “Fools Blues” [Monk and Wayne Shorter] and “MLW Blues Evolution” inspired by Mary Lou Williams, and the tune” El Rancho” might just as well have been called “Spaghetti Western”!

“Don’t Stop Lovin’ Me Babe” was my immediate idea for a lyric to go with the “hook” [melody] in that tune, and of course it is dedicated to my wife Julia. 

This is the first time I have recorded cover tunes so I picked four contrasting ones from the “canon” all of which have contrasting grooves – which is part of the album concept as well.

How did you choose the musicians for it?

Fortunately there are great talents here in Minneapolis/St Paul. I had a bunch of players working in my Quintet and Septet to draw from and others I could pick and choose from for specific tunes.  

Where did you debut this music?

Most of the tunes were played by my band at venues such as The Black Dog in St. Paul and Jazz Central Studios in Minneapolis. The first of two CD release gigs was at the Icehouse in Minneapolis this past November, followed by one at The Black Dog in January.

What’s the biggest challenge for a small ensemble jazz musician today?

Steady work so you can keep the group together for everyone to get really comfortable with the material. Players have to take work where they can get it to survive, and that means people aren’t always playing the music they love and aren’t available when you need them. But I’ve been lucky to have great subs! 

What do you like most about the Twin Cities’ jazz scene?

Great talent and a wonderful camaraderie among the musicians. There is also a remarkable range of styles within the jazz community here.

When did you form your own label “Koganote”?

I formed the label for my first album, “Cornucopia.” It’s a salute to BlueNote records of course, and as my own label I can put out anything I want.  

Favorite melancholy jazz tune?

Probably “Stella By Starlight,” “Blue in Green,” “Nardis” and my own [shamelessly] “Miles Back.” 

What would be your dream collaboration?

I’m between dreams at the moment.

Other comments?

Just that I’m so glad you are interested in my music!

For more information, visit

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Peter Kogan.
© Debbie Burke 2019



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