It used to be that the way to catch some of the best up-and-coming musicians was to go to Vegas and jump from lounge to lounge. Vegas has changed, and the number of lounge acts working there today has dropped precipitously. Today your best bet to find up and coming artists is to go to New York and catch those who work the cabaret rooms, hotel bars and clubs, as well as some of the bigger rooms around town. There you will find a mix of established artists and those to keep your eye on. One of the artists in that environment who is making a big splash is saxophonist, vocalist, actor, writer and comedian (he’s a member of the New York Friars Club), Danny Bacher.
Raised in Wayne, New Jersey, Bacher started on the alto saxophone at the age of 10 before moving on to tenor, soprano and baritone. Studies with William Paterson University faculty, and playing alongside college musicians, while still in high school, eventually led Bacher to bigger opportunities. Graduating with a degree in Theater and Music from New Jersey City University, Bacher quickly started working not only stateside but also internationally performing original works. Settling on the soprano as his instrumental voice, he also took vocal lessons from acclaimed artists like Grammy-nominated singer and educator Rosanna Vitro. All of this helped Bacher develop a strong multifaceted musical style. Early work as a comedy team with his brother Josh eventually traversed into a solo career as a singer-saxophonist-entertainer. Since then Bacher has developed a fervent following, among not only lovers of music but also today’s best musicians. Big-name artists like cornetist Warren Vaché, saxophonist Houston Person, trombonist and arranger Pete McGuinness, and Phil Woods’ long-time drummer Bill Goodwin, among others, make Danny’s debut album Swing That Music! a can’t-miss recording. The critics are, as well, suitably impressed, with the New York Times stating Bacher “(reveals himself) to be a… prodigiously talented musical preservationist.” The Times went on to say, “in his bebop solos he revealed enough of his inner wild man to suggest a maniac behind the cool.” Jazziz magazine seconds that, “(Bacher) pulls plenty of fire from his sax.” Bacher is truly here to stay.
Primarily you’re a soprano saxophonist, but you do play a little tenor. How did you come to focus so primarily on the soprano?
It was a physiological thing first, but there was always something about the soprano that attracted me. I don’t know if it was because I was always a closet clarinet fan while growing up, and I often listened to Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw recordings, but I liked the idea of being set apart. I knew early on everybody and their brother played tenor and alto, and occasionally you get a renegade who goes to bari, but very rarely do you find someone who plays soprano and those that do, use it, in a sense, like a novelty. With the exception of a few cats, it’s really an instrument a lot of people don’t put enough time into. Even someone like Johnny Hodges, who I absolutely love and I think of as a king on alto, played soprano in the famous 1938 concert in Carnegie on a tune or two, and yet he has a different sound on it. He doesn’t play soprano with the Johnny Hodges “warm and silky” sound he had on alto. He sounds like a totally different musician on the soprano. The point I’m making is the soprano is its own beast; between the embouchure and working on getting a good sound, there are only a handful of guys I could say have a beautiful sound on the instrument. The two who come to mind are Lucky Thompson and Zoot Sims, and you have to include Sidney Bechet in that list, even though he had a real distinct sound with a heavy vibrato, and it’s considered by some to be even a bit of a dated sound, still Bechet had a beautiful tone.
I was influenced by so many different instrumentalists growing up, not only clarinet players but also great tenor players like Ben Webster, Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, and right on through to some of the more modern players. However, I always went back to the soprano. Tone was, and is, so important to me, and it was important to me when I first started to play alto. I knew early on, even before I could read music, that I would rely on my ear for tone; I’ve always had a very strong ear and was able to play by ear right from the start. I would listen to big band records like Basie, Ellington, Goodman, and Glenn Miller. At the time I wasn’t able to decipher what the saxophone parts were, I just played along with the melody lines no matter what section had it; trumpets, trombones, clarinet, whatever. I would pick up on the melody and play along.
So this was an early training ground for you.
Yes. It gave me a sense of swing and allowed me to exercise my ear muscles by playing along with all of the different instruments. And yes, I know I’m digressing from your original question about why the soprano, but I need to go in this direction to explain that question. But getting back to the saxophonists I focused on; most people are asked who their influences are. What they really mean is, if you’re a saxophonist, what saxophone players do you listen to and want to emulate. But I went a little further than that. For me it was, who had a sound I love regardless of their instrument and who in a solo sense influenced me. I listened really hard, and still do, to people like Clark Terry who was a tremendous influence on me. Warren Vaché was also an influence. Both of those guys have a great sense of harmony, swing, lyricism, the blues, and melody when they’re soloing. I’m a bit of an old-fashioned sentimentalist in the sense that I think very melodically. I know there are a lot of guys who can play all over the instrument and kill it with regard to playing in and out of the changes, but that was never my taste in terms of how I like to play and who I love to listen to. I love people like Lester Young, Sims and Webster, guys who could really say something by not saying so much in a solo.
A lot of these guys, including Dexter Gordon, were guys who really understood the lyrics of whatever song they were playing. That always fascinated me as a young player because before I was a singer I was just a saxophonist, both instrumentally and musically. I got into the singing later. Really understanding and learning what the message from the songwriter is, is an important element of really digging a piece in its entirety. People like Johnny Mercer, Yip Harburg, Sammy Cahn, Stephen Sondheim, and Ira Gershwin, are all great songwriters and poets, and are all great influences on me. Knowing the lyrics that were married to these fantastic melodies was, and is important to me. When I started I really thought more melodically and didn’t pay much attention to lyrics at first, until after I got into singing. Learning the lyrics has not only enhanced my musicianship, but has helped me convey the story of the tune through every part of my performance, whether it’s singing a standard and telling a story as a vocalist, or by just playing on my sax. By really understanding the vibe and message of the tune. I believe this often helps guide where I go with my improvisation.
So back to how you ended up on the soprano.
Oh, yes. Of course! I apologize for digressing yet again. Back to the soprano: I started to get some neck issues from playing these heavy horns from the age of 10 onward. At one point I was playing the bari, and the chiropractor I was going to at the time took an x-ray of my neck and said, “You’re 20 years old and have the neck of a 60-year-old.” With the exception of my neck being able to collect Social Security in five years, it didn’t sound like a good prognosis. So I really started to work on the soprano to give my neck a rest and started right off developing the sound I wanted on it. I focused primarily on the tone. Unfortunately, the soprano is, to many people, the ugly step-sibling of the saxophone world. Intonation wise it’s tough to find a soprano that will play in tune, and it’s often just as hard to get a good sound on a soprano. There are so many great saxophonists who people revere and love, but when they pick up the soprano, man, it’ll make you just turn the dial, because you just can’t take it. The soprano is a very acquired taste and sadly has a bad reputation. There are people who demonize the horn and criticize it because someone like Kenny G, who brought the soprano into a new light of popularity, played it the way he does. I either get people who come up to me at gigs who say, “What is that, some kind of flute?,” or someone who once said to me, “I love that gold clarinet.” People don’t know it’s a soprano saxophone. This is probably because I play a straight soprano. The shape throws people a bit. I’m sure if I played a curved soprano people would probably think it was a cute little toy.
So why the straight one?
I like how it’s ergonomically laid out. Going back to the tone I feel there is a difference to me between the straight and curved horns. All of my influences that were tenor players who also played soprano, generally played straight horns. I think I just liked the look and feel of the straight ones more. When working on my sound, I tried to translate what I was able to do on my tenor and alto to the soprano. I just worked hard on the sound, and I think this sets me apart from many who play the instrument. I like the fact that the soprano is novel and there are not a lot of guys who focus solely on the soprano, even though there are plenty of guys who play it.
You do have a great sound on the soprano. Were there any special exercises you did to develop your sound?
It might be corny to say this, but listening and trying to recreate the sound of others helped me a great deal. If you have someone’s sound you like, whether it’s on the soprano or not, try to emulate it. Two influences of sound on the saxophone, for me, besides the obvious saxophone players I’ve already mentioned, along with Stan Getz, and Paul Desmond who has a gorgeous velvety tone on alto, are Clark Terry and Warren Vaché. Warren actually plays cornet and has a beautiful soft tone on his horn, but especially Clark when he blows on trumpet and flugelhorn he gets a little bit of a breathy sound that I just love. It’s so organic. I listened to those players and tried to get a bit of a breathy sound that is similar to theirs. Besides the instrument itself, the reed you choose also plays a big role. I’ve experimented with a lot of reeds, but I always go back to the black box Marca reeds. When I went to their #3½, which is a half-strength more than I usually use, I found they produced too much resistance and air for me. The black box Marca #3 strength works perfectly for me. However, reeds are such a personal thing. From what I was told, Steve Lacy, who is not a big influence on me, but who you have to consider because he’s a real soprano player, would play on a strength #1 reed with a real open mouthpiece; I couldn’t even get a sound if I played on a #1 reed.
I used to play a Yanagasawa S901 soprano for about 15 or 16 years as my primary professional soprano horn. I was using a Selmer hard rubber Super Session mouthpiece and ended up using a round wood ligature made by Roberto’s Woodwinds in New York. It was, at the time, a great setup, but when I switched to the Selmer Mark VI all of a sudden that setup was not working any longer for me. My sound totally changed and I wasn’t happy. I then went on a quest and ended up getting a setup put together for me by Joe Giardullo of Soprano Planet. Joe has a lot of wonderful mouthpieces he makes for different players. I went up with my Mark VI and spent two afternoons with Joe trying out every different custom mouthpiece he had. He would change facings, open them up, worked on the bore, but I just couldn’t get the sound I was looking for.
Is that when you went to the Dukoff?
Yes. I knew my horn was great and was thrilled with it, but just couldn’t get the sound I heard in my head. He pulled out a mouthpiece saying, “Here’s one I’m keeping for myself. It’s not for sale. I want you to try it, and maybe we can find one like it for you.” He gave me the Dukoff. For years I was totally anti-Dukoff because I would always hear cats playing them, getting a corny, harsh rock sound on them. I just hated them. I said I would never play on a Dukoff, especially a metal one. He pulled out this M5 with a hole-punch right in the middle of the inside that he had opened to a .064 opening. He said to try it out. I agreed to try it but I knew I wasn’t going to like it. I put it on and it was love at first sound. I said, “I know you said it’s not for sale, but how much?” He said it’s not for sale. Somehow I wore him down and he graciously said, “It was meant for you, and you can have it.” He charged me, but I didn’t care, I had to have it! I also ended up with a couple of other custom mouthpieces from him, and I still have my Super Session, and while they’re all in my case I don’t touch them. I stay with my metal M5 he had worked on. The intonation is superb on it, and I must humbly state that I have a little something to do with that myself, but I am thrilled with it. It helped me get that sound I was trying to achieve and was constantly working on. One thing I’m very happy to say is that whether it’s a fellow musician or a fan, people that come to see me perform all have very positive things to say about my sound, and that’s one of the best compliments I can get as a soprano saxophonist. They all love my tone. I’m not bragging; it’s just what I’ve been told.
You do have a beautiful sound, but what made you leave the Yanagasawa and move to the vintage Mark VI?
I’ve always been a Selmer guy and loved the sound I got from their horns. I just felt I had gotten all I could have from the Yanagasawa and had been on it for a long time. It was time to part company. I called my college professor Ed Joffe for some horn advice. I’ve actually studied with a lot of different saxophone teachers through the years – incidentally, I’m currently working with the great Bob Mover. The man is a genius: he worked with Chet Baker, Zoot Sims, and knew all the guys. With him I’ve been working on harmonic stuff and theory. However, the two guys I mainly studied with when I was coming up were Dave Demsey, who is the head of jazz studies at William Paterson, and Ed Joffe at NJCU. Both Dave and Ed are great technicians on the horn, as well as great session players and all-around musicians. They both came from the Juilliard sax program and worked with the legendary Joe Allard. A lot of great saxophonists talk about Joe. He was the premiere woodwind player with the Philadelphia Orchestra for many years before he ran the saxophone program at Juilliard. I got a lot of great tips, the Joe Allard trickle-down, if you will, from Dave and Ed.
Anyhow, I called Ed for advice on a horn, and said I was thinking of looking at different horns. Yamaha was giving me trial periods with different sopranos of theirs, and I was trying some of the new Yanagasawa horns. But every time I tried a different horn I found I wasn’t even getting close to what I had with the S901. Something was missing. Ed is a very to-the-point guy. He said, “Bacher, don’t screw around. You know what you need. You get one horn and you’ll have it for the rest of your life. Get a Mark VI.” I had always avoided those horns because the side keyboard was so different than the S901, which was built like the altos and tenors I’ve played, with the low B and B-flat keys. I thought this would be a problem. He said, “You’ll get used to it.” He also told me, “You have to get a Mark VI over 200,000 because they will have the best intonation.” Now, even though some guys disagree and like to play with the earlier numbered horns, I tried a few out, and have to say I agree with Ed. The horns over at least 175,000 had a better, more solid feel as well as being easier all-around intonation-wise.
After trying several places and different horns, I finally found a guy in Florida who had one particular Mark VI soprano. I don’t know why, but I’m a sucker for engraving on a bell. It’s hard to find a soprano with the engraving on it. It reminded me of my alto and tenor having engraving, and being a sentimental guy, I liked it. Anyhow, I played the soprano and liked the horn and the whole story behind it. It was a real “players’ horn”. It had been consigned by a guy named Dave Hubbard, who was a tenor and soprano player. He had gone to the Selmer factory in Paris, and picked it out himself in the 1970s. He had it, loved it, and played it until he consigned it with this guy in Florida. I’m only the second guy to own it since it was born in France! My repair man gave it a much-needed overhaul, and I’ve been in love with this horn ever since; it’s a real marriage.
Ligatures were things nobody thought of too much in years past, but today their development has really progressed. Why do you use Silverstein ligatures?
Once I got the new soprano and had that Dukoff mouthpiece, I knew I had to find the finishing touch with the perfect ligature. Some of those wood ones I had from Roberto’s weren’t working because they didn’t fit the Dukoff. The Dukoff’s physical footprint is not very wide. I gave the Francois Louis ligatures a try, as I had also worked with them on and off for many years. Incidentally, I found the silver ones gave me the warmest sound, not the gold ones, which I found were too soft for the soprano; it never ceased to amaze me that every different metal I tried gave me a significantly different tone. I eventually ended up working with a player I know, I think it might have been Ted Klum, because I went to him looking for a new mouthpiece for my tenor, and it was Ted who told me about the new Silverstein ligatures. I thought they looked kind of odd, and I had tried things like them in the past but usually stayed away from that type of ligature. But what did I have to lose? Due to the small size of the Dukoff, I could not find a standard lig that fit, so I made an appointment and went to the company, which is close to me in Hackensack, New Jersey, literally a 20-minute drive for me. They made a custom cut each of their ligatures for me. Now I’m one of their endorsers, it’s not monetary but they have my picture up on their site. I tried several different metal and string/chord configurations they made up for me, but ended up with their classic silver ligature with the black cord. What I really love and find unique about their ligatures are the sound bars which can be moved. The further back you move them, the more open the sound. They are really versatile ligatures, and there are not too many ligatures that can instantly change the tone or sound like the Silverstein. It’s a brilliant design. They did a great job with it, and have since designed some other products I like and use.
For example, they have a UV light you can put in your case. After a gig there are a lot of germs still hanging around the sax. There are all kinds of bacteria blown from your mouth into the horn, and while you can swab it all you want, there will always be some stubborn germs left over. You turn on the light, put it in your case for an hour, it turns off on its own, and it kills about 99% of all of those bacteria and germs. It keeps you healthy.
We’ve talked about intonation, and the soprano is a really touchy instrument when it comes to this. You, however, don’t have any problems handling the intonation issues that come with the instrument. How did you develop your intonational abilities when you were young?
Lots of trial and error. And, of course, lots of funny faces from audience members giving me looks I didn’t want to see. I played a lot. Working with vibrato and trying to get a good tone helped this, because you are constantly adjusting your embouchure as you go up and down the instrument. When you play long enough it almost becomes second nature, how to adjust. You come to know where things lay on the horn. A lot of it also has to do with the mouthpiece. The closer you make the tip at the top, the easier it is to stay in tune on the horn from top to bottom. I encourage people to go talk to someone like Joe Giardullo of Soprano Planet, because he’s an expert at getting your mouthpiece to sound just right. He will help you with any intonation issues. Some people might disagree with this, but saxophonists shouldn’t have to work that hard on intonation. You should be able to hear it, you should know when you’re in tune, and shouldn’t have to be working your chops off just to stay in tune. With an instrument like the saxophone you have enough issues to worry about – intonation is something that should be made simpler. This can simply be achieved when you work with an expert who knows mouthpieces. Equipment-wise, amazing things are being done these days. Instruments are getting much better and everything is improving through technology.
It is amazing what they’re doing with instruments these days.
Yes, but it’s not without its problems of course. You have to be very picky. I encourage every player to be very selective. What works for me may not work for the next guy or gal. He or she may think a certain setup used by me or someone else is going to do the same thing for them, but they might get a totally different sound on the same exact setup. It’s such an individual thing. It’s important to try several setups on different instruments, not just on one or two instruments. Try 10, 11, 15, that many because there is that much of a variance when you’re playing a professional horn.
You’re quoted as saying you model yourself on “the older cats who try to connect to an audience in a fun way.” In fact your CD focuses on music of artists from the past. In this case it’s music of three famous Louis, Louis Armstrong, Louis Prima and Louis Jordan. Why did you choose those three artists as a point of emphasis for your first CD?
In all honesty whenever I do my music I like to entertain with it. I’m kind of an old soul and I can’t avoid that, it’s me and who I am authentically. I really love this music. It used to be the popular music of its day, and people often seem to forget jazz used to be the popular music in this country. There were so many wonderful musicians and so many great people who were playing back then, but they also had this other thing I think a lot of players, musicians and singers, don’t have today, which was the ability to captivate an audience with their performance other than on the technical side of things. Musically they had something else and that was an entertainment quality that put an audience at ease and a smile on their faces. Their whole demeanor and approach as performers read as if to say, “I’m having a great time up here, and having so much fun.” It was infectious. Well, this music IS fun. Originally, when I worked with Rosanna Vitro, my producer on this project, I said to her, “I’ve got to do an album and I want to call it ‘Standard Time’ because I want to do some of my favorite tunes.” She said, “Why in the heck would you do that? That’s just what we don’t need, another album with someone playing or singing standards. “What’s the hook?” What people look for in an album is some kind of concept, whether it be a concept or some kind of a nod or tribute to an artist who influenced you. However, you should not do the music in the same way they did. You have to find your own personal take on their music. Roseanna said, “I think, because you’re a singer and instrumentalist, you should do a Louis Jordan tribute, because you do comedy and everything he did was always so funny. Almost all of the music he did was about being humorous and he was constantly adding comic elements to what he did as a composer, lyricist and performer.” That sounded great, but I then told her I was also a fan of Louis Prima, who was known for the same things. Then I mentioned Louis Armstrong – you can’t ignore what he brought to jazz as a serious musician and innovator, but he was also a great entertainer and true ambassador of jazz. So instead of doing one Louis, we did three.
That started the impossible task of narrowing the music of three amazing catalogs into 12 selections. What I tried to do as we picked the tunes was to look at the span of their careers and what popular numbers they were associated with, and mix that with some more obscure numbers that people may not have heard since they first came out. For example, I wanted to do the Prima tune, I Wan’na Be Like You (The Monkey Song). That was a Sherman brothers composition done for the Disney animated film, The Jungle Book. Everybody knows that tune and loves it. How could we not do it? Of all the songs on my recording it’s the one that gets the most attention from radio people and fans who have bought the album. They write to me saying, “I love the whole album, but that monkey song is my favorite.” There was even a jazz radio station interview I was doing and when speaking with the DJ she made a “confession” that her favorite song on the record was The Jungle Book song. She didn’t want too many people to know she was getting joy out of this Disney cartoon number. That, to me, shows the song did what it was intended to do, and that was proof you can let the academic “guard” of this music we call jazz down a little bit. I wanted listeners to get lost in the fun of the music.
With all respect to the field of jazz education, and having spent time at the JEN (Jazz Educators’ Network) conference the past two years as well as performing last year in Louisville, you can get a vibe that tends to be a little stuffy. I feel jazz now, in this country, has become more about the teaching of jazz than what it originally was, which was a performance-based music. Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t think there is anything wrong with the stress on education, but I think we have to be careful as a jazz community to not go too much in that direction without remembering what this music is about. We can all sit in a practice room for six hours a day and get off on the fact we’re killing it like Coltrane, but at the end of the day, we don’t do this music for ourselves. We have a talent, a gift, and a mission to share this music with other people. It’s a gift, whether you cultivated it or were born with it, and it’s something you most likely want to share. It’s music, a social art form, and an experience people want to go out and have. If someone doesn’t have the ability to connect with others, or doesn’t take the opportunity to find that in themselves, then I think they are doing the music and themselves a disservice. If we don’t do this, we won’t be able to continue putting butts in seats in order to keep this music alive.
I think you’re absolutely right about this. First and foremost jazz is a performance based art. The song St. James Infirmary on your CD, while not a 12-bar blues, is truly drenched in blues sensitivity. Your solo on this song pays full homage to a deep blues-feeling. What advice do you have for other saxophonists to help them develop their blues-feeling playing because this feeling and conveying this feeling is not something one can get just from the notes?
It goes back to what I said earlier in understanding the song. What is the emotion behind a tune? I do a lot of work within the American popular songbook and there are a lot of people who are tired of these tunes and just want to write their own. There are a lot of songs being written without lyrics, just instrumentals, but there is still an emotion and a vibe behind even these songs. The composer, whether they be someone writing for their own group and themselves or someone who is strictly a jazz composer, still has a story behind that song; what that melody means to them. It’s so important to me to be as true an artist as I can be in the fullest sense of the concept, and not just a technician. One must delve into the piece, any piece, in order to play it with as much feeling as possible. I hear a lot of younger players who can play fantastically with regard to technique, but what are they really saying? If they’re only thinking about the following, “Here I’ll do the harmonic minor scale, and here I’ll approach my solo with the secondary dominant in mind, followed by a diminished arpeggio, just before going to a whole tone scale,” well great; that’s a technical roadmap. But what does that say artistically about the piece and about the person who has the horn in their mouth in trying to convey a message or story? I feel very strongly about story, and I think my training as an actor has helped me along the way with story interpretation. When I listen to the great musicians who we all love and try to emulate, I get a sense of their personal voice. They construct something in the moment. The great thing about jazz is we get to improvise and compose spontaneously, but what is it that you’re composing? Where are the silences? Are they as important as the notes you’re playing? Is the musician taking the time to say something melodically, or lyrically, that helps bring back what the piece you’re playing is about?
I’ve had a number of the musical artists I’ve interviewed over the years tell me one of the most important college classes they took was acting, with Steven Jordheim being one of many examples.
I certainly recommend taking an acting class to everybody, especially in college. One thing I do when I’m working with a group of music students in a clinic is to include a theatre game or two right at the start. This not only helps break the ice, but also gets people comfortable in their bodies and gives them a personal awareness of the space they’re working in. When I worked in acting classes you would often come across those who were very outgoing, willing to be in front of people. They had a joy about showing off their wares in front of others. A lot of musicians will use their instrument to do that, but their instrument can be a barrier so they don’t have to be the person who talks, speaks or connects to the audience. It’s as if they hide behind their instrument. I encourage every musician, instrumentalist, and vocalist to take some acting and improv classes because there is a real connection with improvisational acting, and even comedy, to music. Whenever I work with people in both acting and music we find and understand that connection. You’ll often hear a comedian after a great night when he/she kills, comparing the experience to being a jazz musician, riffing with the best of them on the bandstand. There is a great connection between the two art forms. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my mind has gone to the comedy side of things as well as the jazz side of things. There is a great sense of freedom in both. I have a real love and need for that freedom of expression. For those who are looking to see how they can improve as an all-around musician, as an all-around artist and performer, because we are performers, you need to find that truth in yourself. You need to explore different outlets that will allow you to find your way to connect with an audience.
Your ballad conception is really soulful, and shown to its best effect on Dream a Little Dream of Me. When you’re going to take a saxophone solo on a ballad, what are you thinking about? What is your mind process?
If I can be candid, it’s almost like I’m making love. It’s a euphoric feeling I like to get into when playing ballads. It’s so much about lyricism, especially with ballad playing, at least it is for me. I try to not only think of the lyric but I also want to make some beautiful melodic lines. I like to take my time with ballads, and bend and scoop notes when appropriate. Manipulate the sound of my instrument. I try to approach my ballad playing like Johnny Hodges did. There are wonderful examples out there of wonderful ballad playing. Listening has really helped me a lot, and I always encourage young players to listen to others. As far as singers go, I like to think back on Ella Fitzgerald. Her tone as a singer was superb. I’m sure everyone listens to her, but if they really listen, they’ll realize she was a true master in every sense of the word. Sinatra could also sing the heck out of a ballad because he really felt it. You never questioned his believability or his ability to tell the story when singing a ballad. I encourage instrumentalists to listen to the great singers. Billie Holiday as well had a sense of despair and heartache when she would sing torch songs. These singers are some of the greats.
You obviously have a great connection with your audiences. As you’re putting together a live concert, how do you decide what songs will go in what order?
That depends. I reach out to others whose opinions I value, call them, and ask their thoughts. When I put together the live concert for my “Swing That Music!” album, I worked with Marilyn Maye. She is a tremendous singer who is usually more associated with the cabaret world. What I would argue is that Marilyn is a crossover artist. She is 89 and has great stamina, more than many 29-year-olds I know. She is a force of nature and still performing all over the place. She’s in high demand all over the world. When you walk into one of her shows you realize there is something magical about her. She’s a throwback, one of the last people left from the era Carmen McRae, Ella, and Sarah Vaughn came from; she was friends with all of those people too. They all respected her just as she respected them. She even knew Sinatra. The lady was on Carson 76 times!
I went to her and she helped me by actually directing the show. We talked about the order of songs in terms of what makes the most sense story-wise, but we also talked about how to come up on stage and approach the audience. We also considered what tunes worked depending on feel, tempo, etc…I just learned so much from working with her in terms of audience connection. Even though I’ve been working in front of audiences for a long time, when you work with a master like Marilyn, you get a sense of how giving she is to her audiences. She loves to help the artist find their own personal way to connect. What happens a lot with teachers is that they try to convey their own personal style and mold the student into that style. But with someone who is a great master, teacher and performer, they will not try to make you into them; you will be who you are. They will help you find your own connection to the audience through yourself. Audiences are smart, they’ll be able to read if you are forcing something. But live performances can be inconsistent sometimes. That is part of their mystique. Hey, I’ve had shows that go great one night and terrible the next; we all do. Sometimes the reason things may not be the best is because we did something that wasn’t us. Audiences, even if they don’t know or understand musically what you’re doing, they know if they like or don’t like what you do. A lot of that has to do with how you approach it and approach the truth of yourself as an artist. One of Marilyn’s fortes is helping people to find their own strength, and then cultivating that. She’s not telling you, “I want you to be like me.” She helps you find yourself and to be more like you, then bring it out. That’s how I try approach live shows.
Also, because of my background as a comic, I actually like to have a little bit of the fear of not knowing what I’ll be saying. I will rely on my comic improv instincts because I know something will come up I didn’t expect. I’ve done enough of these shows in my life to know I can leave myself a little room to improvise. I know I’ll say something that will be fun and in the moment, at least 90% of the time. People love that. Audiences eat it up if something comes up that is out of the ordinary for you, but you don’t get frazzled by it and in fact use it in a comic sense to make them laugh. It will bring them on your side. One of the natural highs is to make an audience laugh, have fun, and get them on your side. I imagine that’s what being high on drugs must be like. I’m really old-school – I don’t do drugs, but those moments are my heroin.
In your clinics one of the things you discuss is traits a good leader should have. Could you mention one or two of those, because this is an area which we in the academic world don’t teach our students. We do hope they will use the good parts of what they see us do and not use the bad parts of what we do, but what are some of the concepts you cover.
First, don’t be a schmuck. Simply, don’t be a schmuck at any point. Second, be firm to your vision and stay firm to your agenda as a leader. You have to be open to other people and have an open ear, but also don’t let your own vision go by the wayside while trying to please everyone else. Those two things are personal things and don’t have much to do with the music, but you have to be conscious of how you approach and work with other people. There will be some people you love who are tremendous talents but who you can’t work with because of personality reasons or whatever the case may be. You need to know how to read personality types and be able to gauge the ones you like working with. There are some people I’ve worked with or know by reputation who I appreciate and respect, but still, I can’t see myself working with them for different personal reasons. That’s a good instinct to have. A good leader cultivates their instincts. If you make a wrong decision it can be a real drag.
What advice do you have for a high school saxophonist who is thinking of making music a career?
Start to think about what sets you apart. What makes you an individual? Find a niche you really like that you think you can excel at. But because you’re young, don’t be afraid to explore different aspects of music. Work towards who you see yourself as being 10 or 15 years down the line. Do you see yourself playing clubs, working on cruise ships, working as a session player, or do you see yourself as a great reader and doubler doing Broadway gigs? A high school music teacher? Find what you want and then work towards that. I’m sure that along the road you’re going to have a lot of bumps and unexpected twists and turns that may put you in a whole different direction, but if you start with some sort of direction you will find yourself on a track, but always remember that living in the moment will leave yourself open to endless professional possibilities. And that’s a good thing!
Soprano – Selmer Mark VI (200,000’s serial number, ca. 1970s), with a Dukoff metal M5 mouthpiece opened to .064 by Joe Giardullo of Soprano Planet, a Silverstein ligature, Marca 3 reeds, and an AMT soprano wireless microphone system
Tenor – Selmer Mark VI (70,000’s serial number, ca. 1950s), with a Ted Klum mouthpiece, a Silverstein ligature, and Vandoren V16 3½ reeds
Swing That Music! (Whaling City Sound, 2016)