Thursday, December 14, 2017

Matana Roberts!

Matana Roberts

Alto Saxophonist and Composer Matana Roberts, originally from Chicago, IL, has been on the NYC for quite some time now, making a name for herself with a very distinct sound not only on her instrument, but in the very strong projects she’s done over the years. She topped the Rising Star Alto Saxophone section in this years Downbeat Magazine Critics Poll and has been making serious strides developing her original style and concept. Here’s a question and answer between her and I

Were you born in Chicago? 

yes, born and mostly raised on the Southside of Chicago, though I also spent some time as a kid in upstate NY and North Carolina. My dad was a political scientist from Chicago's westside, and we moved around for a small period as he finished his academic studies. My parents were still in college when they had me. My mother was from Chicago also. When my parents divorced my mother brought us back to Chicago for good.

What got you into music?

My extended family has a deep appreciation for the arts, and were very resourceful in finding things, so I was exposed to concerts across many genres, plays,opera, art exhibitions...  at a very,very young age. I was the baby in the baby carrier at concerts and the like etc... My mother grew up in a working middle class african american catholic family, and my uncles (her brothers) sang in choirs and played in bands as hobbies. My grandmother and great grandmother were devoted to the Chicago Lyric Opera--saving up for years to finally get box seats and my mother's father wrote poetry as a hobby. My mother played cello and guitar, but again as a hobby. My dad grew up pretty poor and did not have access to hobbies, but grew up in a family that appreciated music, and he had a teacher that took young men aside in high school and tried to teach them about the thrill of books, chess, and records.  So all that combined between my parents background and extended family really had an influence on me. 

My parents were really into improvised music by the time I showed up. A lot of that music supported the radical politics of that time. We didn't always have food at home, surviving on what was really grad college student budgets, but there always managed to be a lot of records/books in the house.  I remember hearing a lot of Art Ensemble, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, David Murray, Muhal Richard Abrams, Sonny Murray, late Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, combined with great records by bands like Earth Wind and Fire, The Gap Band, folks like Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, and Donna Summer. Classical music too: mostly Beethoven and then a lot of comedy records: Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Red Foxx, Moms Mabley etc...

I also went to public schools at a time when there was still a lot of money for the arts in the American school system... So I got lots of free music lessons very at a very young age as well and a lot of encouragement to work hard at it. In some sense it was where I most excelled. I was pretty bad at everything else in school (except reading. I loved/love reading.)

You were a orchestral clarinetist and made the switch to play the saxophone, specifically the alto saxophone. What made you make the switch?

A combination of a lot of things had me make a switch..... I really loved the clarinet... Enough time has passed now, that I'm okay to now finally just say I dealt with some lecherous gender abuse from one of my clarinet teachers and that is what mainly turned me off from the instrument for a time..... I started on alto saxophone part time in high school because of another teacher's encouragement. At the time I had no interest in the saxophone because I could not afford one. It reminded me too much of the music my parents liked, and no one wants to be into what they're parents are into… you know? But this teacher saw something I guess, and he gave me an old Yamaha student model saxophone to work with, and then eventually in college i got a hold of a professional level alto that took forever to pay for, but it was worth it....

I also had another teacher in high school, who made it a point to get me to come to school early a few days a week, to teach me harmony lessons, because I guess he also saw something.... I really cherish those early morning school memories.... It would be many years before i switched to saxophone full on, but those old lessons helped to lay a foundation.

By the time I got to college I was playing clubs at night and doing orchestral studies during the day. My clarinet teacher at the time found out and said I had to choose.... said that I was ruining my chance at an orchestral position by playing saxophone, because it would destroy my "orchestral sound" on the clarinet. By this time I had also gotten really tired of the classical music cannon, as I felt I could not find a place within that cannon to really express myself 

for some reason whenever I played alto saxophone in front of people I felt really comfortable: it felt like an extension of my own voice. I never felt that way on clarinet. I was always a nervous wreck on clarinet when playing for or with people. 

When I started getting really deep into improvised and jazz musics I was going to switch to tenor as that just felt like a natural progression and then I heard Cannonball Adderly's solo on Waltz for Debby, on that recording with Bill Evans ( "Know What I Mean"). His sound was so fat and rich from top to bottom, a sound that reminded me of the tenor, and I just never looked back after that.

Who were some early your early influences in music? 

Depends on how early? I guess when i started getting serious about improvised music: Saxophonists Fred Anderson, Von Freeman, David Boykins, Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Lin Halliday, John Zorn, Anthony Braxton ,Roscoe Mitchell, and Steve Lacy. Flautist Nicole Mitchell. Bassist Josh Abrams. Drummers Chad Taylor,  Avreeayl Ra, Doug Mitchell. Cornetists Rob Mazurek and Bill Dixon. Guitarists Jeff Parker, Derek Bailey. Lots of singers like Shirley Horn, Betty Carter, Jeanne Lee.

Non jazz/ improvised stuff: I dug a hole deep into some great hip hop and 90's neo soul... De La Soul, Da Brat, J Dilla/Slum Village,  Nas, A Tribe Called Quest and all day long, Boyz II Men, Eve, the Roots--anybody coming out of philly/anybody associated with Native Tongues at that time really.... Janet Jackson, Rah Digga, later Prince, Xscape, biggie, tupac, Aaliyah, Bahamadia, En vogue, Jodeci, later Luther Vandross (bc of my mama really, she loved her some Luther:)) 

Meshell Ndegeocello, Erykah bad, and Lauryn hill, changed my whole being really, they seemed fearless in music, and all reminded me of possibility....

and then started checking out more Morton Feldman, John Cage, Velvet Underground and spiraled out wildly from into hardcore music and then there was the mind spinning discovery of Fluxus and the musicians involved in that...

So that  sort of a very condensed “early on”….. its definitely gone in many different directions since then. I listen to a lot of different things these days that are really not related in any discernible way with the exception that it is "music", and music is a wonder...being able to hear is such a privilege.

In Life? And why?

early influences in life? I don't know.... I've always had a certain love for folks of any gender who see life in a way that flips the current view.... What I value most in life is what I can do, what i can learn, how i can help, not what i can own or hold over other people..... So that's a pretty wide umbrella that covers a lot of different people from many walks of life...I read a lot. maybe too much. but i love language...right now have been deeply inspired by the writings of Roxane Gay and Jane Jacobs.... I also get a lot of inspiration from the natural world....Water on earth and beyond, is a major component of inspiration/experimentation and constant obsessive exploration...

Can you talk about Coin Coin and what how it began? Also, is it going to be a 12 album project?

Yes its going to be 12.

here's a quote from another interview ( i did that I feel sums it up pretty well:

"I have a really big interest in the spirit world: spooks and the things we can't necessarily see but feel. An exploration of ghosts and things of that nature. There was a period of my childhood where I tried to contact people on that plane and I stopped doing that as a teenager because I heard it can induce states of psychosis if you don't have a proper guide. So I left that and I realized that music is my medium, my guide. So the COIN COIN work has a lot to do with stories and people from my ancestral history in the sense that I've always wanted to have some kind of contact with [them]. Also I'm a history geek and I love American history. It's so bizarre and so problematic and I love the many conundrums that it represents. You can go down so many black holes and this project has got me in a certain hole as well! It's a way of interpreting that history in a way that makes sense to me."

How and what do you practice now? Does it differ from how you practiced 10 years ago? How so? 

my practice now is deeply multi faceted depending on what Im working on.... I do so many different things in the name of sound with my alto as the root... but I guess saxophone wise, its all about breath, sound, pace and patience. Long tones never die etc.... Im also more interested in the science behind my body's connection to the alto and so I explore that a lot in my practice these days as well, kind of tracking things i never tracked before (like heart rate, brainwaves  stuff etc).... but really just the tried and true basics, are the same as they have always been for me. There are still things I can't do on the alto that I would like to do, so it's a never ending saga of chasing that train... i feel grateful for its place in my life. Keeps things humble:).

It differs maybe in that I'm no longer in a competitive state about playing my horn.... I used to be, and though I think it did help for a time, it started to tear at me. Works well for some though.

The saxophone is a tool that I have been graced with to make sense of life, not fight it or try to over control it so my focus has shifted, and I’m no longer practicing to try to prove something to someone, because its not about other people or even myself, its about ways of the universe and the cosmos, you know?

I often hear multi phonics/harmonics in your playing. Can you talk about that and how you’ve studied/practiced it?

I guess my ratted copy of Rascher's Top Tones for Saxophone probably would give that away....I just work on it...its a constant....and at this point I'm no longer sure what I'm after, I just enjoy it.

What are things you do to maintain your creativity and motivation in music lately?

I do a lot of physical explorative stuff: yoga, movement stuff.... and anything water related....mostly swimming right now. Yogic breathing and swim breathing does so many great things for my saxophone playing.....  I'm also getting a lot out of learning how to really "see" in the natural world.... reading "water" is actually a thing that goes back many many centuries and I'm deeply fascinated and inspired by it...... It's all about patterns and very delicate systems that to me are very related to how i see or want to see sound....

In an interview, I heard you speak about sticking to your creative goals and ideas… Your creative and artistic voice. That’s something I think many of us are trying to get to and maintain. Can you talk about the importance of this as well as the effect it has had on your career?


Well I was raised in an environment where I never had to hold my head down really.... I was always taught to have a sense of self and to know that I don't have to ask permission for seeking my truths, and that I should always question those that feel otherwise. So I've just always tried to move with where the energy is taking me even if it's contrary, making large leaps, worrying about the smaller details later. Sometimes this has worked out well and sometimes this has led to utter disaster but I'm still alive to tell the tale so...

My career? Idk. I'm just grateful to have one. 
I prob could of maybe made some things a bit easier on myself up to this point, but that's not where the energy was pulling me... 

If you were stuck on a desert Island, what 5 albums would you take with you?

wow thats a tough. I chose 6, sorry.

Fred Anderson Quartet Volume 1
Eliane Radigue's Tryptych
Carla Bozulich's Evangelista
Jesu's 1st record( self titled)
Arvo Pärt's Tabula Rasa
 A Tribe Call Quest's Low End Theory

Is there anyone that you haven’t worked with yet that you’d like to?

wow soooooooooo many people..... I really admire the work of french bassist Joëlle Léandre..... I'd love to work on an extensive project with Me'shell Ndegeocello....we've done some small things but I'd really love to invest more time with her.  She's a walking genius... Kyp Malone is someone I'd also love to work with as he is obsessed with sound in ways that make sense to me.... I'd love to play with Cecil Taylor, Evan Parker, Mark Ribot, Jason Moran, Moor Mother, Susie Ibarra,Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, Saul Williams, etc etc and etc..... and in general, I'd love to just be working with more elders....That's where the real wisdom is...

What’s your set up?

Right now? a late mark VI (almost VII) alto these days. I use a vintage hard rubber new york meyer 5, w/ vandoren classic blue box reeds( 3-3/12), and a francois louis ligature.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Black History, Black Culture, Black Audiences, Black Lives

I have to first apologize for not being so much of a blogger lately. I'll try to get better at doing more posts, but I honestly can't promise it. The more I get into playing this music, the more I realize I have so much to learn and very little time to do so. But again, I will try... thanks for being patient... 

The reason for this post, is to respond in full to a post by a fellow musician, the great pianist Ethan Iverson. I've been listening to Ethan's playing since I first heard him with the band "The Bad Plus". From there I went on to find him on recordings by Reid Anderson (one of the first bassist I used when I first started my band in Philly at the age of 15), and the great drummers Billy Hart and Tootie Heath. 

I’ve always been into reading blogs and I’ve been following Ethan Iverson’s blog “Do the math” for years now. He recently did a great post on the movie “Whiplash” that caught my attention. I hadn't seen the movie and was wondering why I was so apprehensive when it came to it. Ethans post pretty much summed up why I didn't want to see the movie.  But near the end of his post, I came across these two paragraphs, which I honestly read probably 5 times before I finished his post:

Nobody in jazz these days plays to predominantly black gatekeepers or audiences, whether in the clubs or in the schools. It's essentially an esoteric art music for those who love it, everybody welcome - because we truly do need every goddamn fan we can get!

Naturally, the more black people involved the better. Unfortunately, when the topic of contemporary jazz is at hand, it feels like - although I don't know for sure! - many in black intelligentsia aren't that interested.

A few days after reading that, I was compelled to respond to Ethan, which I did on Twitter with these Tweets to him.

I read your post on Whiplash. Just wanted to address the part about "black intelligentsia not being interested"

For one, I think we have to remember there was a time when blacks couldn't use the same entrance to clubs as whites

If a club told me I had to use a separate entrance, I still wouldn't want to go to that club once things changed.

We also have to remember that there used to be clubs in black communities (like Harlem) that blacks went to & even owned...

Of many things that have changed, It's very clear that there aren't many "jazz" clubs in black communities any more.

We also have to consider education. I never learned about "jazz" or anything that had to do with my culture in grade school.

Luckily I had a mother that was into this music & exposed me to it & other styles of music at a young age.

In school, the (meant to say we) learned about Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart.

I love Bach, but looking back, I wonder why I wasn't taught about Bird, Ellington, & other American musicians in school.

I was a music ed. major at Berklee. When I went to do my student teaching I noticed the urban schools had no music classes.

Meanwhile, the suburban schools were learning all about Ellington, Monk, Armstrong and other American musicians/composers

Almost all of the suburban schools I visited didn't have many if any black students. The urban schools were all black.

I can't say this is exactly why "many in the black intelligentsia aren't interested" in jazz, but I think it's beyond a start.

I wish I would've responded via this blog first instead of posting all of that  on twitter, but hey, here I am now. And I'd like to explain every tweet I sent if they aren't clear.

For one, I have to I believe there are many different things that play into why there may not be many african americans/blacks in the audience at "jazz" shows and why it may be perceived that most black people aren't interested in the music. There have been many responses to this question. From the music becoming stagnant, to the location of the clubs, to how the music relates to black culture today.... It's definitely been a topic for a while now. At least it has amongst the black musicians.

I have to start by saying that I'm from Philadelphia. And throughout my early stages as a musician, I  always played to a diverse audience that not only included many different races, but also included many different age groups. In fact, I can't remember seeing anything BUT diverse audiences every time I've performed in Philly up until now. Though all of that seemed to change once I left Philly. I'm not sure why that is. I do know for sure that Philadelphia is a special place, but is Philly less segregated than other cities around the world?? And do more people know about jazz in Philadelphia than other places in the US? Maybe. 

So why is it that we don't see african americans/black people in jazz clubs and why does it seem like some of us aren't interested in it? I'd like to first talk about black history/culture in schools.

 I was a dual major in music education and performance at Berklee College Of Music. During my second to last semester at Berklee, I visited many schools inside and outside the city of Boston to decide which 2 schools I was going to go to do my student teaching. While researching the schools in Boston, I was surprised to find that some of the schools in the urban communities didn't have a music class at all, while the suburban schools not only had a music class, but were teaching their students about the great composers and musicians in American history. And I'm talking about Black American composers and musicians like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and John Coltrane....! It was amazing.

   When I look back at my education in Philadelphia, I wasn't taught very much about my history as an African American in grade school or high school. I received history lessons about my culture at home from my mother and from the many great mentors and teachers I had OUTSIDE of the Philadelphia school system. That goes for Black art, music, and literature as well. Luckily, my mother was (and still is) a huge fan of jazz music and was listening to John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Pharaoh Sanders, Miles Davis, and more before I was even born. So I was exposed to that music as a child and continued to learn about it as I began playing the saxophone. But where would I be or who would I be if my mother hadn't been exposed to that music or her culture and history? I can surely tell you I would not be here typing this very post right now if it weren't for everything I've learned from her.
  The truth is, if a child is not getting exposed to his/her culture and history at home and isn't getting it from school. Where is he/she going to get it? How can we hold him/her responsible for getting that information? My answer?  We can't. The sad thing is, in situations like this, it becomes a cycle. And if that child grows up and has children that get the same education at the same kind of school that he/she did, the history becomes lost and that child grows up not truly knowing about his/her culture and heritage and how great it is.

To go even deeper into this, I have to say that I believe black history and black culture is not only important to the black community but is important to our country (and the world) as a whole. When I think about what happened in Ferguson, Missouri with Mike Brown and in New York with Eric Gardner,  I wonder what the police officers responsible for those deaths learned about black culture and history when THEY were in school. Or if they were even exposed to anything that had to do with a Black man outside of what they may have seen on TV or in the movies. 

If everything those officers saw about black culture came from TV or the movies, that means 9 times out of 10, they've only been exposed to negative portrayals of  black men and nothing but stereotypical figures that paint us as uneducated, violent people who's lives aren't worth much and don't have a future. There's definitely tons of that in the media. I don't think those police officers were exposed to the great African Americans that help build this country. Or about slavery and how it was one of the most horrendous things to happen in the history of this WORLD. Or about the great black leaders that fought to end slavery. The civil rights movement....  About the great African American inventors that are responsible for so many things that we all need in every day life.... About the great writers like James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Lorraine Hansbury...  Or the great composers and musicians like Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Billy Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus and others that have influenced and inspired people around the world.

The truth is, black culture/history is American culture/history. And it's not taught in most schools. At least not in this country. There are some people that are given the opportunity to attend schools that include black culture and history in their curriculums, and there are those that are fortunate to have parents that teach them about black history and exposed them to the culture. But I truly believe that until it's taught in all schools and is considered as important as the other parts of American history that ARE taught in schools, we can not expect to see more diverse audiences or expect more people to be interested in jazz music anytime soon.

Lastly, I would like to discuss my tweet about the history of black people in clubs. I've always tried to imagine what it was like to perform in a club that didn't allow you to use the front entrance. And how it may have felt for blacks that wanted to attend a show where they had to use a different entrance than the one the white patrons used. I didn't live in those days, but I don't think those days were that long ago.  I personally can't imagine wanting to go anywhere that made me use a separate entrance than everyone else, let alone perform in one. 

As I say that, I know I would've been in trouble in those days based on the fact that it wasn't only clubs that didn't allow blacks to use the same entrances or bathrooms back in the day. I probably would've had to stay home most of the time to avoid being angered by those discriminating boundaries. But maybe like everyone else, I would've dealt with it if I was around during those times. I often wonder how many people were put off by those rules to the point that they didn't want to go to any clubs to see live music back in those days, but the truth is, many black people had to use separate doors and bathrooms almost every time they stepped out of their own doors. And the African American community has continued to go to the movies, go to restaurants, and go see concerts by artists of other genres today. So maybe I don't really have an argument when it comes to Black people not going to jazz clubs because of that part of history.

 There is one thing.. I've spoken to some of the masters of this music that were around during those times, and they all remind me that there was a time when there were many clubs in Harlem and other black communities. I've also been told that there were indeed more diverse audiences Uptown back then. Some of the clubs even had blacks owners. But when all of the black owned businesses in Harlem and the other black communities disappeared, that included many of those clubs and their black patrons. Which to me means that maybe we would see more black people in jazz clubs if there were more jazz clubs in the black communities...

To conclude, I believe it all boils down to exposure and education with this music, this history and this culture. I myself came to this music by being exposed to many different styles of jazz. And I'd be lying if I said I liked all of them at first. Some took time to grow on me, others I got hooked to immediately, while some are still growing on me to this day.

 So what can you do to help spread the word about this music?? Buy a friend a recording of something you think he/she may like, or take that friend to a show that you think he/she may be into.. Parents - take your children to performances and expose them to as much music as possible and buy them recordings too. And If you can, buy your child a musical instrument (I personally think everyone should learn to play something at some point in their life), have them take lessons, and expose them to the masters of that instrument. Who knows, you may be responsible for the next jazz master, next jazz journalist, or next huge jazz fan. Push to have more black history classes in your child's school. Write your representatives and let them know this is an important issue to you... So that your child can know the true story of America. What's most important is that you'll be giving someone a chance to better understand this culture and it's history, which is something I think more people need to do today.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Mulgrew Miller

One of my favorite musicians in the world passed on May 29th. He inspired me in so many ways. 

His phrasing was perfect, he had amazing melodic ideas, amazing harmonic ideas, and a great touch on the piano. He always swang so hard and was always extremely soulful. But most importantly, he was one of the most humble musicians I ever met. You felt it in his music and you felt it when you spoke with him.

I was introduced to Mulgrew Miller by the very amazing "Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw Sessions" that were issued on Blue Note Records in the mid 90s. This release features two CD's "The Eternal Triangle and "Double Take", which were recorded in the 80's and also feature Kenny Garrett Alto Saxophone, Ray Drummond on Bass, and Carl Allen on Drums. 

When I moved to NY, I became a huge fan of Mulgrew. Every chance I got to see Mr. Miller play, I was there. One of my favorite performances was of his trio with bassist Derrick Hodge on Bass, and Karriem Riggins on Drums at the Up and Over Club, a great place I used to frequent in Brooklyn that has been closed for some years now.

I always wondered why Mulgrew Miller was so overlooked… Why he wasn’t touring the world more with his own bands, playing at all of the major jazz festivals, playing at Carnegie Hall, or praised more for being the amazing musician he was… But when I talked to him I knew that that was the last thing on his mind. He was all about the music, and love… He was always very respectful and a true gentleman. And that meant and still means so much to me. I cannot explain how much this man inspires me and continues to give me such a great sense of pride… but today I wish I actually said this to him before he left us. Thank you Mulgrew Miller! You will truly be missed and your music will live on in our hearts!

Mr. Miller has many great recordings. I recommend all of his recent trio recordings - Live at the Kennedy Center (Volume 1 and 2) & Live at Yoshi's (Volume 1 and 2) as well as his recordings Hand in Hand, The Sequel, With Our Own Eyes, Time and Again, and The Countdown.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Life and Music as one.

I can say as a musician, that sometimes you get so caught up in music and your career that you don't realize how time is slipping by. You don't realize the things that are happening around you and you don't think of the possibilities.. The possibilities of losing a loved one or something happening around you or to you because you're not paying close enough attention.
In the past year, all of that came to light in my life. I lost a lot of people that were close to me in different ways. My cousin was killed in a motorcycle accident two days after I was with him at a surprise birthday party for my Mother, my Father (who I hadn't talked to in years) passed away suddenly, and relationships with others ended drastically, catching me on my blindside and totally knocking me off kilter. All causing an extremely traumatic, painful year that I still feel as though I'm recovering from.
 From these experiences,  I've learned to to be thankful for life. Thankful to have another chance everyday I wake up. Thankful for the people that are in my life that are truly genuine, sincere, and care. Those that aren't selfish and that I don't have to question in ANY way. My Mother being beyond a PERFECT example of that. I've also learned to pay more attention to my surroundings and to follow what my heart and gut tell me, because they almost NEVER lie. In the past year I've learned so much about the words respect, trust, and integrity.... Three words that everyone should look up from time to time.

  I've also learned what music means in my LIFE. How it affects it and how I should pay more attention to my life for the direction of my music. Charlie Parker said "If you don't live it, it wont come out of your horn". Although, I don't want to go through the things that have happened to me in the past year again, my eyes are wide open now and I certainly get it. Practicing everyday is one thing. Actually having a story to tell is another.

  So to those of you that are artists and those of you that are not... I'd like to say.. be true. Honesty and sincerity always come through in music and are eventually revealed in life. The reason our heros like Lester Young, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, and Wayne Shorter were able to penetrate our souls was because they were sincere and honest in who they were. They didn't hide it in their personalities or their music. It was all one.  Live life to the fullest and cherish the people that are TRUE to you, support you, and LOVE YOU. The ones that are always around, always there for you and you don't have to seek. They don't HAVE to be there and may not be there forever.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Those that know me know that I'm a fan of Tenor Saxophonist Mark Turner. I first heard him when I was in high school on a CD by Jimmy Smith called "Daaaam!", but it wasn't until I heard Mark's CD - "In This World" that I really started to check him out and became a huge fan. Besides his own recordings (one recording for Criss Criss and four recordings on Warner Bros that I highly recommend), Mark Turner has made amazing contributions to recordings by Guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel as well as a group that he co- leads with Bassist Larry Grenadier and Drummer Jeff Ballard called Fly. I'm also fortunate to have had Mark as a guest on my first CD "Perspective".

For a while I've been inspired by Marks sense of harmony, range, and control of the horn. But what stands out just as much as all of those qualities is his humility and sense of self control. Upon meeting him, you will find him to be a very cool, quiet person, almost in a meditative state. If you get a chance to sit down and talk to him, you'll find he has lots of information and is just seriously cool. I have a lot of respect for this guy. Nuff said... Here's a recent Q & A between the maestro and I.

Jaleel: I know you were born in California. Can you talk about what it was like growing up in California, how you came to play the saxophone, and who some of your early influences were? Also, how old you were when you started to get serious and realized this is something you wanted to do as a career? Was Berklee your first choice?

Mark: Actually I was born in Ohio, Wright Patterson Air Force Base. My father was a Captain in the air force...his job was navigator in B52 bombers. We later moved with my stepfather(bio father died in plane crash) to L.A. (where I grew up) when I was four. I started playing the clarinet in school band in 4th grade(age 9). There was also a citywide marching band in which I was also involved. I played clarinet until 9th grade when Jazz (big) band was an option so I switched to alto and later tenor (11th/12th grade).

Some early influences were my saxophone teacher Bill McNairn who was strongly inlfuenced by Lester Young, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn. Also My parents had some Sonny Stitt/Gene Ammons records, My Favorite Things, Stardust(John Coltrane) Sonny Rollins(The Bridge), Sonny Side Up(Dizzy Gillespie), some Brecker Bros. Also my parents listened to music a quite a bit - partiularly lots of R&B(Stevie Wonder,Al Green, The Spinners, Earth Wind and Fire, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding etc). Regarding getting serious, not sure how to answer that as I'm still working on that part.

That said, serious meaning consistant daily practice/ involvment in music...started to take shape first or second year of college then by the third I was "serious" about music. Berklee was my first and only choice as I didn't really know about any other music schools on the east coast. Incidentally, by the way I got to Berklee that was my third year of college. Notion of Music as a career? That was gradual and was never really sure. Just took it a day, month, year at a time while it became a more consistent part of my life.

Jaleel: How was your experience at Berklee College of Music? Who did you study with and what were some of the things you focused on when you were shedding at this time? Also, who else was studying at Berklee at this time?

Mark: My time at Berklee was generally good. When I came I didn't know anything so there was nothing to lose(musically) and everything to gain. I learned from the other students as much as from the teachers. At that time there was Josh Redman(across the Charles river), Seamus Blake, Chris Cheek, Chris Speed(NEC), Antonio Hart(Tony back then), Donny McCaslin, Jordi Rossy, Danilo Perez, Roy Hargrove, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Scott Amendola, Scott Kinsey, Laila Hathaway, Delfeayo Marsalis, Jim Blake, Skooli Svereson, Dan Rieser, Jeff Parker, as well others. Teachers were George Garzone, Joe Viola, Billy Pierce. At that time I was mainly trying to learn the vocabulary(transcribing) and play the saxophone reasonably well(technique/time). Basically learning how to play. I wasn't as interested in originality as in fundamentals. How could I approach making this music mine if I don't really know what it is and or cannot speak its language? I'm still learning it as the process is gradual but at that time it was more fundamental than the present for the most part.

Jaleel: One of the first things I noticed when I first heard you was your control over the horn, your range, and your sense of harmony. What are some things that you practiced regularly? Are these things you are pretty much consistent with today?

Mark: Much of that (harmonic sensibility, horn range) were things that came after Berklee. Although foundation started there. After transcribing a lot I had learned from that process things other than vocabulary such as voice leading/harmony, note groupings, ornamentation, pacing, phrasing, swing/time, sound. Transcribing helped me to learn how to assimilate/integrate information in my own way. So I tried to find ways to combine/continue these things without transcribing. For example play a two five with voice leading( two to six voices all smooth voice leading), see all common tones including all alterations/change of chord color, change cadence with final chord the same, keep cadence change final chord, use note grouping of some type, triads, intervals, use ornamentation etc. Range came out of necessity. There were things I wanted to play that required it. So these are all things that I still work on. Maybe content changes but the format is similar.

Jaleel: Another thing I've noticed about you is that you are a very centered, focused, and humble. On the gigs I've done with you, it sometimes seems like you are meditating before you play. Sometimes doing yoga too. How has this helped you today and do you think it has had an influence on your playing?

Mark: I just try to keep things in perspective and maintain mindfulness on the task at hand. Perspective(what is really important in the relative and absolute, what is one's role/intention in a given situation) helps keep the ego( belief/clinging to an inherently existent I/self. Which includes all things associated with self such as... my body, my mind, my hopes, my fears, my desires, my aversions, my friends, my enemies, my material possessions, me, me, me and on and on etc) in check. Besides, ego is the killer of imagination...drags you down. Have no time for it. Mindfulness/Meditation help to keep the mind clear, focused, pliable. Yoga and running help to keep body/mind reasonably healthy. I'm a slow learner so I need time. Don't want this body to fail too soon.

Jaleel: As both a great saxophonist and composer, who would you say are your biggest influences in music and why?

Mark: Although this not a musical influence I would say at this point my grandfather Lewis Jackson is my greatest influence. Born to a working class family, died an aeronautical engineer, educator(college level), multimillionaire. If you met him you would never know it. He didn't talk about himself, what he lacked, or what others had. He just did. Keep in mind that he did this during the height of mind twentieth century segregation, before civil rights laws passed in the sixties. He and my grandmother lived in the same modest home until his death and left almost all of their money to education, the arts, and other charities. He was curious, imaginative, practical, intelligent, action oriented, and generous up to the end of his life. He died as he lived.

John Coltrane. More or less the same reasons as my grandfather but of course applied to music, craft, and culture. I would like to add adventure combined with taste and elegance. power/strength with tenderness and lyricism, blues/folklore with complex harmony/melody. Maintains center no matter what. Sound

Joe Henderson. Master of fast tempos, time, and pacing. Always in the rhythm section, over it on command. In other words he wields/galvanizes the rhythm section...does not simply play his language over it. One of the fathers of quickly moving form(in composition) which we now take for granted. Master of playing different "styles" /bands and giving each what it needs while maintaining his musical integrity/language. Always makes everyone else sound good. Blues/folklore. Maintains slick, cool, swagger no matter what. Sound

Warne Marsh. Master of invention. Rarely repeats himself. Willing to fall/stumble(musically) to find a new melody. Improvises at all costs. Relies primarily on content, placement, anticipation rather than volume/ dynamic range and inflection. Brings an inward contained/concentrated energy rather then an outward spread. Maintains cool no matter what. Sound.

Wayne Shorter. Prolific, varied, composer. Conjurer. Wide imagination. Covers full range of emotion. Sound.

Thelonius Monk. In terms of composition and playing. Great attention to detail. Says a great deal with only what is necessary. Covers full range of emotion. Fully aware. Conjurer. Blues/folklore. Chords. Sound. Use of space.

Lester Young. Melody. Use of space, pacing. Says a lot with little in a short time. Intelligent, witty improviser. Blues/folklore.Sound.

Miles Davis. The power of one note.

Duke Ellington. Prolific composer. Able take a format and write on it inexhaustibly. Chords.

Morton Feldman, Arnold Shoenberg, Bach, Beethoven. Harmony, Form, Chords, Space

Issac Asimov, Ursula K. LeGuin. Imagination. Ability to created a world/paradigm that lives on it's own terms

John Lennon/Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder. Great song writers

All musical colleagues.

I could go on and on but need to stop somewhere.

Jaleel: Lately, I'm realizing a lot of the masters have moved out of NYC. And I've been reading some great books that talk about how EVERYONE used to live in NY and how there was a little more networking going on amongst the older and younger musicians back in the day. I'm also seeing a lot of great musicians move out of the city and even the country to pursue their careers. But it's something I'm kind of afraid to do. Do you feel a connection to NYC musically? How important is it for you to be in New York?

Mark: I do feel a connection to NYC musically although I don't feel a necessity to stay here. I did live in New Haven for nine years. There is no other energy like it anywhere else in the jazzworld. It is and has been important to get a taste of it. I would not be what I am (musically) if I had not lived here at some the very least to experience the culture as I believe it is still here(NYC).

Jaleel: You were one of many great jazz artist that were signed to a major label and experienced the collapse of those labels. I still remember running into you at the Vanguard and you telling me that Warner Bros. Jazz was basically no more. How was it to experience something like that first hand and how do you feel about the direction the music scene is going as far as recording goes?

Mark: On many levels it was good experience. If put back in same time period I would do it again but with a different head. Namely I did not realize how much power I/we musicians have. The people I knew at Warner Bros. loved music and worked really hard to keep it going/living. Regarding collapse, everything arises, abides, and falls/ born, lives and dies. So what else is knew? Something is being born/created in terms of recording. More creative freedom. Home made recording. Mobilization from musicians/ community.

Jaleel: What do you work on now when you practice? Do you still transcribe?

Mark: I practice sound mostly. Time in various ways. Vocabulary, technique, Voice leading, Ear training, Mind exercise. I don't transcribe much...little bits here and there from any type of music


Mark Turner plays:

49,000 Selmer Balanced Action Tenor Saxophone
w/ and early Babbit Otto Link #7 mouthpiece & 4 1/2 - 5 Robertos Woodwinds reeds


Yamaha 62 Soprano (which I would like to change to a Conn)
w/ a Bill Street mouthpiece (super great) w/ 4 1/2 - 5 Robertos Woodwind Reeds

Friday, May 27, 2011

Better Late Than Never!

It's been a while since I've posted anything, but it's been a crazy/busy year so far. Between the beginning of the year and now, I have recorded a new CD with the Roy Haynes Quartet that will include guests Chick Corea, Roy Hargrove, Marcus Strickland, Craig Haynes, and Robert Rodriguez. I also did performances with Christian Mcbride and Inside Straight in Europe and Bermuda, performed in Boston, Wayne NJ, and New York at the Jazz Standard with the Roy Haynes Quartet, Israel with the George Colligan Trio, and recorded a new CD with saxophonist Dayna Stephens that will include Ambrose Akinmusiree, Taylor Eigsti, Joe Sanders, Justin Brown, and guest vocalist Gretchen Parlato.

I'm looking forward to this summer. I'll be making my debut at Smalls Jazz Club in NYC with my own band, which will feature Lawrence Fields on Piano, Boris Kozlov on Bass, and Johnathan Blake on drums. I will also be performing with Orrin Evans and the Captain Black Big Band, the Donald Edwards Quartet, Ben Williams Quartet, Roy Haynes, and Christian McBride and Inside Straight this summer. All of the information about those gigs can be found on my website -

Something I'm really excited about is an interview series I will start on this blog. They'll basically be question and answer interviews with some great musicians on the scene today. So far I've just completed an interview with saxophonist Mark Turner and I have E.J. and Marcus Strickland lined up to do one (even though Ms. Beener beat me to an interview with Marcus! LOL! Check out that interview here! Look for the Mark Turner interview in the near future and the interview with Marcus and E.J. soon! Hope you are all well and I'm still trying to stay up on my posts... Hopefully I'll be more consistent in the future!!!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Health, Love, and LEEL in 2011

I just met with a natural medicine doctor tonight that gave me a new diet and health tips. One things he said to me really hit home. He told me to surround myself with people that LOVE me, are honest and want to be in HARMONY with me. And to find a companion that ADORES me and is patient, understanding, and all about resolving any issues. And to secure that adoration.

All I can say is that he hit the nail on the head... Just from him saying that, realized how I've struggled over the past years to keep some of my relationships stable or even existing. When on the other side of that my friend may not have been trying that hard or may not have cared.. And I realized how that struggle physically may have caused stress to my body and mind... Although I feel as though I let lots of that go over time and have found great people to surround myself with, I need to be more conscious of it and to completely be at peace. I feel as though I may have gotten away from the more peaceful, positive reserved Leel I used to be and I'm hoping to get back to that.

Another thing I need to be more conscious of (and the reason I went to see him) is what I put in my body. Although I THOUGHT I ate right, I still have had health problems to address. Sure, I shop at Whole Foods a lot, which is great, but it mean I shouldn't read labels to see what's in my food? Ok.. Enough of this super personal blog! Happy New Year!!!