Talkin’ Sax at Litchfield Jazz Fest
Posted 9/4/2012

Bourne: But that’s usually the baritone kid’s gig.

Braden: In my middle school, they didn’t have a baritone. They had a tenor. I said, “I’ll take an alto.” I played one year of alto in fourth grade. I got to eighth grade and said, “I’ll take an alto.” And they said, “No, you’re going to get a tenor” because I was already six feet tall. “Here’s the tenor.” I hadn’t played for a couple of years, and I was completely at sea. But by ninth grade I was really practicing and I got connected to it just based on that. I got into the pop saxophone guys like Grover Washington and Wilton Felder and the Crusaders and Ronnie Laws, Hubert’s brother. I was just getting into those guys in ninth grade. I got into jazz guys in 11th grade, when I went to jazz camp. They said, “Oh, there’s this guy named Joe Henderson. Check him out.” Wow. “There’s a guy named John Coltrane. Check him out.” Wow. “There’s a guy named Charlie Parker. Check him out.” Wow.

Bourne: That’s the next question. Who else did you listen to? Which other musicians really inspired you? And what about them?

McCaslin: When I was in high school, my parents were divorced. I lived with my mom, but my father lived in a school district that had a really great jazz band. When I was 12, I kept hearing about this big band at Aptos High School [in California]. I used my father’s address and went to that school. And my high school band director, Don Keller, who just passed away recently, he had been in the Navy with Bill Berry, who played trumpet in Duke Ellington’s band. And Don was a trumpet player. Bill, during the time he was in Ellington’s band, had copied the charts. And he was using them in L.A. He had the L.A. Big Band, and they were playing some of the Ellington charts. He basically laid all that stuff on Don Keller.

This was before this stuff was readily available for high-school students. This was basically 1980–’84. So, I was lucky enough, at 14, to be playing music like “Cottontail” and “Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue” and “Warm Valley” and “Take The ‘A’ Train.” How lucky was I? I was influenced by Paul Gonsalves and Johnny Hodges. But on another level, the whole Ellington-Strayhorn compositional thing had a big influence.

Then you have the great horn players—Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley. And I’m really fond of Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Bud Powell—people who don’t play the same instrument that I do, but I check out a lot of that stuff.

Zenón: Discovering jazz, as a whole, is what made me want to become a musician. I started playing music at 11. And from age 11 to 17, I went to this performing arts middle school and high school in Puerto Rico, but it was all classical training. I discovered jazz through friends late in my schooling, at around age 15 or 16. I loved music, but I thought of it more as a hobby. I never thought I would dedicate myself to this or let it become a lifestyle until I discovered jazz. What I saw in jazz—when I heard Charlie Parker for the first time, or Miles Davis for the first time—was the whole idea of improvisation, the idea of creating something out of nothing. This improvisation being so good—in a language that is as deep as jazz—totally blew me away. Then came Cannonball and Johnny Hodges and Lee Konitz and all that for the alto players. But then eventually, the tenor players like Sonny Rollins and Coltrane and Joe Henderson and all the greats.

I’m a big fan of transcription. Listen to a song, write it down, learn it. Basically, getting information from that solo that somebody else played. I’ve gotten a lot of information from transcribing solos from people who don’t play my instrument: piano players like Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Bill Evans, Bud Powell. As much as I get from the older players, I get a lot from people who are still around today. I’ve gotten a chance to play with all the guys here, except for Don, but I’m a great admirer of his work. I draw as much inspiration from them as I do from the older players.

Bourne: Miguel, your last record was a wonderful celebration of the Puerto Rican songbook. But your new record [Rayuela (Sunnyside)] is inspired by a great author; not just the stories he told, but also how Julio Cortázar told those stories very innovatively. How did you transmute that into music?

Zenón: I’ve always been interested in the idea of just drawing inspiration from sources outside of music, with literature or mathematics or science. Music is just a perfect vessel to transmute everything that’s around us. The universe has given us so much information, and we put it out there in our own way, in our own language.

I was really drawn to this book. I’ve derived a lot of inspiration from it. Basically, this is a project conceived by me and pianist Laurent Coq. He’s from Paris. We took a lot of the main characters and a lot of the episodes from the book and translated them. Sometimes in a direct way, where we’d be inspired by a story or a passage. Sometimes, by literally taking a sentence or a word and finding ways to turn that word into notes or rhythms or harmony and create music that way. I think the experience was to get closer to the idea of music being second nature, not something that you have to think about but something that comes out of two different avenues, if you will.

Bourne: And Donny, you just played a piece [at the festival] that was inspired by a middle-of-the-night search for your baby’s “binkie.” I mean, there are many things that can inspire music beyond music inspiring music.

McCaslin: Absolutely. That was inspiring to hear Miguel talk. For me, I’m deep into parenthood, as they say. I definitely draw a lot of inspiration from that. It’s more along the lines of the emotional ups and downs. Obviously, that song was about the tension of looking for this thing. But there’s so much joy and love that comes through parenting, and I really love that.

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From left: Gary Smulyan, Miguel Zenón, Donny McCaslin, Don Braden and WBGO's Michael Bourne (Photo: Fran Kaufman)

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