WWBW: Hey, Jim.
JS: How are you?
WWBW: I’m well. How are you this morning?
JS: Oh, it's a rainy cloudy day in New York, so I’m sticking indoors right now.
WWBW: So it’s early afternoon actually?
JS: Yeah, just about. 1:00 p.m.
WWBW: You blow your warm-ups yet today?
JS: Already fired up, fired up, yeah.
WWBW: Do you have a routine per se?
JS: My routine has varied over the years. I usually start off with an exercise actually that was developed by Carmen Caruso who was a --
WWBW: Trumpet player.
JS: Really famous trumpet teacher.
WWBW: Yeah, actually I’m a trumpet player myself.
JS: Ah, there you are. It’s my understanding he was a saxophone player actually, but he taught trumpet and he became very famous for that. So they call it the magic six notes.
WWBW: G to C.
JS: Exactly, but I do it on the alto saxophone, It’s a little different range so I do it from D to G.
WWBW: Half note, half note, whole note, whole rest, chromatic G to C. Then C to G. Some lip slurs and then not much else. Jump right into it .
JS: That’s what I do. The same exercises but not the lip slurs, obviously. But I do the, you know, the breath attack, tongue attack, whole note, rest a measure and then go up a half step. I start on middle D and I go up to G. It’s a really good exercise because it just makes you quite aware of your oral cavity and the tongue. You know it’s a good, it’s really to get the air flow so you can have clean articulation.
WWBW: Say, Downbeat Magazine has been kind to you before but they’re really noticing you this year. Yes?
JS: Yeah. I mean as far as I know, this is the first time I’ve made a reader’s poll and that’s quite something because my first recording was done exactly 30 years ago.
WWBW: Wow. I mean you have received some four star reviews from Downbeat previously.
JS: And also there was a feature. Two years ago, I had a full-length feature with, you know, it was about four or five pages, four pages I think and they’ve been kind to me. But you know, lots of good reviews and exposure but I have to say that in my 50s I’ve had the most consistent recording career. That’s for sure. I’ve been with Savant. Folks like Jerry Bergonzi, Eric Reed, Houston Person are on that label, too.
WWBW: Well, I’m from New England, from New Hampshire, so Bergonzi’s a big hero for all of us in New Hampshire.
JS: Oh, man, he’s one of the best ever.
WWBW: Yeah. Out of sight.
JS: And so I feel honored to be on that label and that’s given me a higher profile so you know I’m feeling good about my 50s now. What can I tell you?
WWBW: I know right. Here’s an interesting coincidence. I did the Wikipedia quick thumbnail bio on you and we are very close to the same vintage. I was born June 6, 1958 so you’re a week older than me.
JS: Wow. Wow. All right, man.
WWBW: But yeah, it’s just a matter of figuring out what gift you’ve been given, what you’ve got an appetite for and what you develop and just sticking with it and keeping your fingers crossed and sometimes the rewards aren’t immediate but if you’re convinced, then you’re probably right.
JS: Well you know, the best advice I ever got from anybody on being a musician was from Phil Woods who was a mentor of mine when I was a teenager. He said, “Don’t do this unless you got the burn in your belly.”
JS: He told me that probably when I was 17 years old. And that was the best advice I’ve ever had about being a musician and I decided that I did, so that was it.
WWBW: Well, I’ve been listening to you lately and man, I love your sound and your approach. It’s intellectual but it’s got heart as well and, you know, which kind of describes Phil’s playing as well.
JS: Oh, thank you. What a compliment.
WWBW: I think in order to get a real clear picture of your musicianship, you have to start by remarking your versatility. You know, your resume is so varied. Is that born of like a love of a wide variety of idioms or born of just wanting to work a lot or both?
JS: I would say it was just a matter of necessity. You know? I worked with who was interested in hiring me, essentially.
WWBW: Yeah, and then you do what they need, at least in a sideman capacity.
JS: Right. I did a lot of that. I did the typical upper end New York big band circuit and played with various well-known leaders on the small group scene. I was lucky enough to get to have someone ask me to do a record back in 1984, which was 30 years ago.
WWBW: Now that was after your association with Jack McDuff, correct?
JS: Right. Yeah. That was one of the best things I’ve ever done I would say because, oh, man, it was like going to graduate school. I came out of North Texas and we were into 1960s Miles Davis and John Coltrane and suddenly I was in a band with an organ master, travelling, crisscrossing the country and we would play, you know, a typical night in Harlem would be 10:00 pm to 4:00 am and we’d probably do ten different blues in one night.
WWBW: I’ve been theorizing in listening to you that that early association with Jack has had a lasting legacy on your playing.
JS: Absolutely, absolutely. It did. Yeah, I really -- he taught me by just listening to him and being you know having to play over top of that, he really taught me about swing and he taught me about the importance of the blues. I can say that with absolute certainty.
WWBW: I am way with you, man. There are some jazz musicians who seem to want to skip that lesson.
JS: Aw, man. That’s too bad. It really is fun.
WWBW: And so after working with Jack, you jumped into a really high octane big band with Toshiko Akiyoshi and Lew, Lew Tabackin.
WWBW: Going from medium simple heads and extended improvisation into some really scripted sectional playing, that must have been a shift right there.
JS: Actually, I didn’t think I could do it. Lew called me up and asked me to move to New York and asked me to fly to them, come down for rehearsal and I told him I just didn’t think I could do it because I hadn’t been doubling for almost two years. Really, I was only playing the alto saxophone and going on the road and I knew how hard the music was, how much flute and clarinet and everything it was and I told him I didn’t think I could do it and he said all right and then, thank God he called me back a couple of weeks later. He said just come down. It all worked out. You know, it worked out so Frank Wess became the lead alto player.
JS: And --
WWBW: You upped your relationship with him as well.
JS: I did and Frank was one of the very coolest people I’ve ever known. I mean, he was cooler than cool and you know? It’s inspiring to be around people like that because you know, you think -- you realize that it’s possible to be really such a great musician and at the same time be so down to earth. Yeah, you know Frank was, he was nicest to me but also very hip. You know, just hip.
JS: And a deep musician. His whole aura was really inspiring. So, you know, I was around Frank Wess for about 12 years and he did the Mingus band for a while and some of my best friends were in that band. We toured. I probably was with the band for about three years and then, you know, the Sinatra thing.
WWBW: Now how old was Sinatra at the time?
JS: It was toward the end of his career. You know he was in his 70s. It didn’t matter, man.
WWBW: Still a great deal of power.
JS: Listen, he got up there and the time and the tone, it didn’t matter if he was old or not. The guy knew how to, you know, touch greatness when he was singing.
JS: He just was -- he knew how to reach the source of life when he was singing and being around that man, there’s no replacing Frank Sinatra. That’s for sure. It brought a whole another appreciation for presentation. I thought Frank was just a genius at the way he presented his music as a person on stage. You know just in touch with source of life. It was one package that really had incredible impact. Incredible impact really. It was an unforgettable experience.
WWBW: Now, for all these great gigs you’ve had, Sinatra, Akiyoshi, Frank Wess, Jack McDuff, I have to think that there’s got to be a special joy in presenting your own compositions with your own quintet formats. Can you talk about that?
JS: Well, it’s not just quintet. It’s, you know, recently actually most of, all of my records for Savant. I just done my fifth one for Savant and that’s called “Main Street” and it’s a quartet and it’s inspired by different towns across the United States. Pieces on there dedicated to places that I’ve thought were special and then there are three other tunes that are written by other people about towns across the United States. So it’s kind of a concept record and when you’re writing in that format, then you’re trying to, you know, connect with an attitude and physical presence of a place and create music out of that. So that, I’m interested in that kind of thing. I always have been.
WWBW: That makes sense. I mean, the power of places is extraordinary. Like when you’re addressing the character of a city, say you just try to think of the musical influences that emanated from that area, let them inform the composition or --
JS: No, it’s not about the musical influences. It’s about trying to in some small way reflect a certain facet that’s taught me about a certain place. So, you know, I was born in Redwood City, California and my dad went to Stanford. I was born there and I went back. We moved to another area and I moved as well. My family’s from the East Coast and I was like six months old when my family went back and I grew up around Washington, D.C. But I went back there recently and the whole, you know, Redwood City and that whole area around there was striking in beauty in just a kind of relaxed swagger of that area. So I thought about it and I tried to write something that reflected that. You know? We did “Autumn in New York” on the record and that’s one, a standard that I loved so much and I really think at that time, it’s at the elegance of Manhattan life somehow. The elegance, I should say the elegant side of life in Manhattan and I’ve lived in Manhattan for 32 years.
WWBW: I can tell that you and I could probably talk about music for a long time. So as not to occupy the entirety of your morning --
JS: Oh, that’s fine.
WWBW: Here at Woodwind/Brasswind, when we’re all about gear of course. It’s what we do.
JS: Right. Right.
WWBW: You’re a Selmer endorser? What alto do you play?
JS: I play a Selmer Mark VI and I also play an AS-42 and I find the AS-42 to be the best of its class. I really, I’ve been playing that at clinics and some concerts, too. It’s an intermediate horn, but it’s fun. I like to play it and it really feels like a Mark VI when you play it, like just in a very natural way. It feels like a VI. I’m not saying it’s as refined as a VI but I’ve played VI most of my life and I feel comfortable with the sound that’s coming out of the saxophone. It feels like a VI to me.
WWBW: As an educator, I’m sure you have opinions on the critical nature of quality construction of student and intermediate instruments.
JS: I do and I think that, you know, how can I say this? I think that there’s a lot of wisdom in the great horns of the past and there’s no need to change that formula in order to meet what you think perhaps is a design improvement. Often, it’s not. Often there’s something very strange about it. When I’m talking about that, I’m talking about bores, I’m talking about tone holes, I’m talking about necks. The great thing about the AS-42 is it’s got a Paris, Selmer Paris neck on it. My neck on my Mark VI, listen, I play my Mark VI most of the time, the neck on my Mark VI is a special neck. If I put a different neck on that horn, it plays differently. When a kid picks up a horn, I don’t think it should be something necessarily that has been created for a kid. I think it should be something that really sounds and has worked for years and years and years, and it’s going to work for them, too. They’re going to grow into it. As they get better, they’re going to be able to capitalize on the qualities of the horn more and more.
WWBW: Yeah. There’s a certain, “don’t fix what ain’t broke” wisdom that could apply to some of these innovations.
JS: Yeah, yeah. So I play, and then I don’t double anymore, so I don’t play flute, or clarinet, or soprano or anything.
WWBW: Any tenor?
JS: No. No, I never. I was always afraid of a tenor, actually, because I thought I would like it too much. One time I was hanging out with Charles McPherson and he said, “Man, every time I pick up the tenor, I ask myself why am I playing the alto.” But then he picks up the alto, and he goes, “Oh, OK.”
WWBW: That’s why.
JS: I mean, the alto is a maverick. It’s an instrument that can sound very harsh. A lot of saxophone players have a tendency to switch to tenor at one point. The thing about the alto is that once you really get inside of it, it has a soaring quality, is the best way I can put it, that is unmatched in music. It really has a searing, soaring quality to it that is just magical.
WWBW: My favorite horn player in the crowds that I used to run with back east, this guy named Pat Herlehy. He’s an alto player, yet his description of why was almost identical to what you just said.
WWBW: And he’s a great guitar player, as well. I say he plays alto like Cannonball and plays guitar like Wes.
JS: Wow [laughs].
WWBW: The guy’s just wonderful. He plays with a great blues singer named Mighty Sam McClain. I don't know if you know his work, but he’s great blues singer. Check him out. Mighty Sam McClain. He’s a uniquely gifted vocalist.
JS: I sure will.
WWBW: Do you have a reed endorsement going on right now?
JS: Yes. Yes, I do. I wanted to definitely continue with that. I play D’Addario Jazz Select 3M, unfiled.
WWBW: How long have you been with that particular reed?
JS: Oh, I played that reed for probably 10 years, maybe. Maybe 8 years. I’ve been with Rico, now D’Addario for over 20 years. One thing that I’m proud of is tone quality. It’s something that I’ve worked very, very hard on and a lot of critics have commented on that. I’m very particular about my equipment. I have an excellent vintage mouthpiece. I play a vintage, a New York Meyer 5. And I have a particular ligature that I like, a Selmer ligature. I talked to you about my neck and the pads and the resonators. All of this stuff, for me, and the reed, especially, too, all of this stuff equals, how can I say it? It helps me to consistently execute my sound and style. That’s what I want. I want to have something that is consistent and for me to produce what I’m hearing. There’s a lot of hard work in getting that. Equipment is definitely part of it, absolutely part of it. So I’m particular about that, and I don’t play any reed or any horn just because I just happened to pick it up. It matters a lot.
WWBW: Yeah. I’ve finally, at this tender age of 56, pulled together what I am really happy with, as far as equipment. I’ve found that a lot of what it had to do with is not getting so freaked about brand prestige or anything else. I’m getting the mouthpiece thing figured out, also.
JS: Yeah. There is a synergy that’s created with equipment. If you think about it enough and work on it hard enough, you can find a synergy in equipment that really makes life much easier. That’s all I can say. Dexter Gordon said that he was never happier than when he found a great Rico reed. As long as I feel like my equipment is cool, that’s a big part of happiness in my life, because it just helps me to, like I said, be consistent.
WWBW: Another area, at least within retail, I’ve got a pretty good perch on what comes in and goes out, there seems to be a wave of really nice cases, like Bam and Hiscox. Do you stick with the stock case, or is that something that with touring do you get a more heavy-duty case?
JS: I don’t. I have a case and I’ve had it for a long time. I don’t even know if they make them anymore. Berkeley of London. I have that case, but I’ve customized it myself. I put in extra – I tore out all the padding. I redid the whole, and put some extras, some better latches and stuff on that. And then I have a Cavallaro, a fabric case that goes around it on the outside. It’s shaped like a gig bag so I can throw it on my shoulder. But honestly, I have checked, and I see people with very nice cases. Mine is pretty small. It’s very protective. Knock on wood, I’ve never messed my horn up, and it’s no problem in any kind of plane, so that’s what I use.
WWBW: How about sound reinforcement? Do you get particular about microphones and processing, anything like that?
JS: Well, my go-to microphone on the road, if I go into a hall or a club or whatever, is SM 58. For the alto, an SM 58. You know, flat with a little bit, very little goose on the bottom, is a good deal for me. That really works.
WWBW: Nice. You know, the 58 used to get matched with the Shure Vocal Master Column and a four ten-inch speakers on the other side.
JS: I owned one of those [laughs].
WWBW: So those 58s were designed to get a little rise out of the bottom so you got a little more woof, and then a presence peak for the vocal. Yeah. It’s a great design. So you don’t do wireless on the gig?
JS: I don’t. I’ve been thinking about. I have been on gigs, concerts and whatnot where they’ve had that, and I’ve used them and I’ve liked it, but I haven’t explored it. I don’t really know. My wife is always telling me that I should do that because it’s much nicer on stage. But I haven’t gotten around to it yet.
WWBW: And lastly, what about your lesson program?
JS: I’d like to talk about that. When this comes out, it’ll already have been done, I think, finished out. Woodwind & Brasswind is throwing this special starting next week for 45 days, offering improv course as a bonus for the purchase of select saxophones, trumpets and trombones. The whole premise of the Jazz Conception Company is to offer world-class courses, let’s say, in improvisation and performance. Right now we have a saxophone course for basically the price of a private lesson, one private lesson. We’ve got an online viewing system that works on any computer, but we also have an iPad app. That app allows all of the video content, books, historical performances and a patented testing system, like a written testing system, time theory and stuff like that, to be downloaded so someone that has poor Internet connection doesn’t have to worry about connectivity with the app. It’s really very powerful. There are a lot of people that want to learn how to improvise and there aren’t a lot of people that know how to teach improvisation. We feel that we’re bring something that’s really needed to individuals, people that want to learn how to play, improvise or play jazz saxophone, and also to schools. You know a jazz band, I most high schools with music programs have a jazz band and the kids in there are expected to improvise some of the time. They’re not taught how to improvise in most cases. This idea of using technology outside of the classroom to deliver content that they would not be able to get in school – there is no improvisation course, usually, in high school. Then they come into the classroom using traditional methods of coaching and mentoring by the band director or maybe another student that’s into improvising, they can integrate what they’ve learned into the big band rehearsal. We feel that instruction in improvisation is sorely needed at the schools that meet.
WWBW: I think it’s intimidating for somebody who didn’t come up, maybe didn’t have a family of musicians. When that first dissolved for me was in college. My high school band instruction was rigid. There would occasionally be little 16-bar solos with those slashes, but no leadership as to what to do with it.
JS: Right, right. I’m flattered that you looked at the lessons. I’ve had a lot of experience in teaching improvisation. These books that I’ve written, it’s almost been 20 years now, a Jazz Conception series, are really very popular. By the way, maybe you can mention this in there, that we’re coming out with a new edition of a Jazz Conception book series that’s going to include a chapter on improvisation.
WWBW: I think the web-based nature of it and the app-based nature of it is going to make it speak in a language that’s more comfortable to kids coming up now. Plus, it’s just easier to keep track of your progress. There are a number of things about it that are unique to having a digital component to it.
JS: Thanks. We were really very conscious about quality. I think that the way that the lessons are presented are very accessible and the high quality. We want people to feel like they’re engaged. I think that’s something that’s been missing in video instruction. Also remember that we have a system that allows the music to appear as it’s being discussed in the key that the individual or class is in.
WWBW: Right. And you can’t do that from a strictly book-based system.
JS: No, no. But to be clear, Chris, my company is The Jazz Conception Company. The books, The Jazz Conception Series, are books that I wrote about 20 years ago. They are published by Advanced Music. I was just the author of those books. The video lessons and the stuff that we’re talking about with The Jazz Conception Company, that’s something that I produced and I’m the founder of that company. Really, as far as Woodwind & Brasswind is concerned, this idea of the multimedia courses is something that we want to talk about, because Woodwind & Brasswind is going to offer the courses next year.
WWBW: Just to clarify, it’s not just for sax players.
JS: Right. The improvisation course is for any instrument, and the music, you can hear the music as it’s being discussed, in concert, C concert, treble clef and bass clef. Trumpet, B flat trumpet that’s transposed properly, B flat tenor that’s in the right range, and E flat alto. There are five keys. Yeah. It’s essentially universal improvisation course. I was very careful when I developed the curriculum to discuss concepts that are not dependent on ability, really. For instance, in one of the improvisation lessons I’m talking about the notion of balance and timing, and this idea of more versus less, meaning more melodic content versus less melodic content, more rhythmic content versus less rhythmic content. When you start thinking in those terms, that really applies to the most basic improviser or to the most advanced improviser. I can talk to a 12-year-old about improvising. I can say we’re going to improvise on a C major scale, and I’d like you to play more actively for four measures, about, and then less actively for four measure. They start to get a sense of balance in. Then you can talk to an advanced player about that, and it’s the same thing. It’s just there’s more knowledge and depth there, but it’s the same concept.
WWBW: I think we’re covered the main areas that we wanted to. Is there anything else we missed or anything that you want to emphasize?
JS: I’d like you to emphasize that this is the most active period in my career, after 30 years, that I’m with Savant and I have this new record coming out called Main Street. Of course, the Downbeat reader’s poll and my company, The Jazz Conception Company. Those are really my main topics.
WWBW: Yeah, I think we’ve got it.
JS: I really appreciate your research and your knowledge, Chris.
WWBW: I started looking into what you do and I was just, like, I have to get – God, how do you break through? I’m a player. I go to shows and I hadn’t heard of you.
WWBW: The trials and tribulations of jazz music, and its so often neglected expert practitioners is – when you find somebody who is dedicated to it, and the love of it obliterates something else maybe a little less soul-satisfying and a little more pocketbook satisfying, it’s inspiring. I wasn’t going to dog my end of it. That’s for sure.
JS: [laughs] That’s refreshing.
WWBW: Are you getting to Los Angeles any time?
JS: I am. I’m going to be there. There the JEN Convention, the Jazz Educator’s Network.
WWBW: I’m there. I’m running the booth for Woodwind & Brasswind.
JS: There you go. I’m going to be there. My booth’s going to be there for my company and maybe we could arrange a catalog signing hour or something on one of the days. I think the catalog, you’ll have it by then.
WWBW: All right. I’ll conspire with on that and whatever happens, I anticipate we’ll be able to pull that off without a hitch, I’ll meet you and shake your hand and thank you for helping me out with this interview.
JS: OK, man. I look forward to meeting you.
WWBW: All right.
JS: OK. See you, Chris. Bye.
WWBW: Alright. Bye.