Interview with Adam Claussen: I have to have all the intellectual work done ahead of time: Video


Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist and composer Adam Claussen. An interview by email in writing.

JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Adam Claussen: – For the first 18 years of my life, I lived in a little suburban town called Derry in southern New Hampshire. Both of my parents are musicians— my dad went to Northwestern for classical percussion and has been the band director at Salem High School in NH since the early 90’s, and my mom went to BGSU in Ohio for flute performance, worked for Brannen Brothers Flutemakers in Woburn, MA, and co-ran her own flute repair company Flute Arts for many years. So, naturally I grew up surrounded by music, whether it was watching Dad’s marching band perform at football games, listening to Mom test flutes in her workshop, or listening to the CDs they gave me when they discovered my interest in jazz. I always saw playing an instrument as a rite of passage in my family— both of my sisters got to pick an instrument when they were old enough, and when it was finally my turn I picked the saxophone. My elementary music teacher Charles Blood got me started with the basics, and in middle school, my band director Jodi Lalos introduced me to jazz. I remember after the first day in jazz band, I told my parents I wanted to quit— it was just too hard, I thought. Mr. PC was too fast to play. The slashes on the page just didn’t make any sense. Fortunately, my dad helped me practice and by the next rehearsal I loved playing jazz, and that was that. Over the years following, many teachers helped me along the way and gave me the tools I needed to succeed. Mike Adams at Pinkerton Academy kept me focused and gave me many performance opportunities, and my private teachers Mike Sakash, Rob Daisy, Charlie Jennison, Peter Hostage, and Mike Annichiarico along with many others gave me the foundation upon which I’ve built my musical skills.

JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

AC: – The very first jazz musician I remember listening to was Charlie Parker. As with many saxophonists, a lot of my improvisational language is built around the bebop vernacular he developed in the 40s with Dizzy. For the first few years, I was all about straight-ahead jazz— I listened to Cannonball, Miles, Basie, and Coltrane like they were the latest and greatest hits in music. It took me a few years to get into some of the more modern stuff, and my sound on saxophone changed from that traditional kind of bebop- centered sound to more of a bright, modern one as I listened to cats like Chris Potter, Kenny Garrett, and Vincent Herring. It’s all about listening and transcribing as much as you can — you can’t develop a sound if you don’t have anything to initially model it after.

JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

AC: – I’ve come to learn over the years that if I think I sound good while I’m practicing, it usually means I’m not really practicing at all. So, to avoid falling into a rut, I start out every session with some free improvisation until I run into an interesting harmonic or rhythmic idea. Then I run that idea through different permutations— take it through all 12 keys, play it in the altissimo range, invert it, that sort of thing. Sometimes I’ll use a metronome if I want to specifically work on rhythmic ideas, or I’ll use a pitch drone if I want to work on intonation or harmonic/melodic development. Then I move on to whatever I have to practice that day— a tough big band chart, sight reading, transcriptions, or what have you.

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? You’re playing is very sensitive, deft, it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance. There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?

AC: – Recently I’ve been very interested in jazz/folk fusion harmonies. You know, diatonic bass movement, I / III moving to the IV chord; it’s all over the title track “Arethusa Falls”. I’ve been trying to get more into playing melodies when I improvise rather than just playing “lines”. It’s very idiomatic for saxophonists to play fast notes over everything, and since I’ve already learned how to do that I’ve been working on trimming out the fat and just playing the notes I feel need to be there. I think I was able to get this approach to come across most effectively on the first track of the album, “What Can Anyone Do?”. The written melody comes across as dissonant when paired with the harmonies I wrote, but the melody notes by themselves make sense together; they were all very deliberately chosen. I tried to reflect that a bit in my solo by playing melodies rather than playing a bunch of random notes. Another factor that informs my playing is the context of the tune— in that same track, Andre took his solo on piano before mine. He chose to play very dissonantly over the A sections, and more consonantly over the bridge, so I did the opposite to add contrast to the tune.

JBN.S: – How do you prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

AC: – I’m always listening to music from all different sources, so it’s inevitable that whatever I’m listening to will seep into my playing a bit. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to let disparate influences into my playing; in fact, I see it the opposite way. Some of the most interesting music comes from the combination of seemingly unrelated sources— jazz itself originated from European classical harmonies heard in southern churches paired with African rhythmic patterns. From its inception, jazz has always been a fusion of many different styles of playing, so I see no need to avoid that in my music.

JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

AC: – The way I see it, the two should be both separate and together at the same time. They are separate because when I practice, it’s almost entirely intellectual— I’m consciously thinking about everything I’m playing so that I can improve specific aspects of my musicianship. When I perform, I try to forget about all of that and just be in the moment. On stage I want to play what I feel and respond to what the other musicians in the band are putting out there and get a feel for what the audience is reacting to. In that way intellect and soul are separate, but at the same time they are one; when I practice by myself, I have to be passionate about what I’m practicing or it won’t stick with me in the long term. When I perform, I have to have all the intellectual work done ahead of time in the practice room, otherwise I won’t be able to bridge the gap between what I’m feeling and what I am physically capable of executing on my instrument. Intellect and soul coexist in music. Sure, there are a lot of musicians who focus less on complicated technique and more just play what they feel— take Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy, for example. They were the abstract expressionists of jazz in their day. Their music was not about structure, form, and technical capabilities, but raw passion and emotion. There are also a lot of cats out there who take intellectual playing to a whole new level, like Chris Potter, Keith Jarrett, or Ambrose Akinmusire. Their music also has deep passion, but it has more of an emphasis on complete technical mastery of their instruments. The common denominator among all of these musicians is that when they are performing, none of them are thinking intellectually about the music; it’s all internalized by the time they get on stage so that they can exist in the moment. The balance is definitely different for each player, but no musician can be successful without a certain amount of both intellect and soul in their playing.

JBN.S: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; are you okay with giving the people what they want?

AC: – To a certain extent, yes. It really depends on who I’m playing for. If I’m hired for a gig playing background music or playing for someone’s wedding, of course I’m going to play what the audience expects— most people expect to hear straight-ahead jazz standards when they see a jazz combo at an event. If it’s my gig though, I’m going to play my music the way that I envisioned it, and I just have to trust that the audience will understand it and make some kind of personal connection with what they hear. Some of the stuff I write can be a little out there, like “What Can Anyone Do?” and some of it is much more down to earth and relatable, like “Ranek”. Within each set and each individual tune, I like to give the audience something anyone can relate to. Whether it’s a simple diatonic melody over really weird chord changes, or a few simple chord changes underneath a wild solo, as long as there’s something the average listener can use as an aural anchor point I’ve done my job as a performer.

JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

AC: – A few years ago I had the opportunity to perform with the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra through UM. We were doing a benefit concert in LA, and the headliners were crazy— Quincy Jones, Kristen Chenowith, Julie Andrews, and several others who had special relations with Henry Mancini. Well, one of the artists who conducted the orchestra was none other than John Williams. The orchestra consisted of your standard classical orchestra setup plus a big band smack in the middle, and because of that setup, that put me just a few feet in front of Mr. Williams, and the pieces he conducted had me doubling on flute and piccolo. So here I am, a saxophone major, attempting to approximate what a real flute player would sound like with John Williams at the podium waving his left hand at me to back off a dynamic while the actual orchestral flutist is in the back playing everything perfectly. One good thing came of it— I don’t get nervous performing on flute anymore, because I don’t think anything could ever come close to making me as anxious as pretending to play flute in front of John Williams.

JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

AC: – Unless they grow up with jazz in the household like I did, young people need to be eased into the tradition in the same way as coffee or fine wine. You can’t give a teenager a shot of espresso or a bitter red wine and expect them to love it if they’ve never tried anything like it before. You have to let them try something more familiar and sweet, like a frappuccino or a rosé and let them go from there. It’s the same with jazz. Newer jazz-influenced groups like Snarky Puppy, Shenzi, Knower, and Kendrick Lamar are more appealing to younger crowds, and these groups might lead to listening to related artists like Kamasi Washington, Weather Report, and Jaco Pastorius, and these groups might lead to artists like Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheney, and Chick Corea, and before you know it, boom! They like jazz. You don’t realize that you like wine, espresso, or jazz until you’re already knee-deep in it.

JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

AC: – I think we’re all just here to lift each other up and take care of the world. At the end of the day we’re all just existing pointlessly in the face of the void of the universe, so we may as well enjoy our tiny fragment of time in life, right? I don’t really hold any very specific beliefs about the meaning of life. People throughout history have looked to religion and philosophy to find inward peace, and if that works for them, then that’s great as long as it doesn’t negatively affect others. In my opinion, life’s meaning exists more in our relationships with each other and the world around us, so rather than praying to a god who may or may not exist or reasoning that it’s all pointless because science can’t prove the existence of an afterlife, I think as long as we take care of each other and preserve our little world for our children’s futures, we will find comfort in life and death. For me, music seems to be the most effective way to bring happiness to other people’s lives, so that’s what I do.

JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

AC: – Man, that’s a question with about a million possible answers. I would change a lot of things if I could, but most of all I think music should be about the music— not production, autotune, lip syncing, or pyrotechnics. Nowadays when people pay for a concert, they want an all-encompassing experience and they want to know exactly what they’re getting before they even buy the tickets, and I understand that. But I think the quality of the music itself suffers when emphasis is put on making a ton of money and turning it into a big Instagram-story-experience. Of course, there’s been watered-down music for a long time— Tchaikovsky wasn’t always trying to push the envelope with his orchestral works, and Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood” certainly isn’t the greatest jazz piece ever written, but I think it’s become a lot easier in recent decades to be a successful musician with very little actual musical ability. So I suppose if I could change one thing in the music world, it would be to bring the focus back to the music and the skill required to do it well.

JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

AC: – I’m always trying to expose myself to different music. Recently I’ve been listening to classical works by composers like Chopin, Stravinsky, Debussy, and Ravel. My roommate Andre Bernier put out three indie albums last year that are quite reminiscent of Bon Iver’s music, so I’ve been playing that on Spotify quite a bit as well. On the jazz side of things I’ve been listening to a lot of Chris Potter, Troy Roberts, Kenny Garrett, Thad Jones, Jim McNeely, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, but there are a couple albums in particular I just keep coming back to. I just love “Coltrane’s Sound” and “Africa/Brass” by John Coltrane and I’ve listened Ahmad Jamal’s piano trio album “Live at the Pershing” too many times to count at this point. I also keep Wayne Shorter’s “Speak No Evil” on loop in my car’s CD player most of the time.

JBN.S: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

AC: – I don’t think there’s just one all-encompassing message in my music. I try to give each tune a different meaning, or at least something slightly different than the other tunes I’ve written. For example, “What Can Anyone Do?” is about the anguish and powerlessness that many people feel when things go wrong in life. It’s a pretty tumultuous song, but it ends on a note of hope, because there’s always light at the end of the tunnel if you just stay strong. This is very different from a song like “Null Island”, wherein the driving force is pure energy, or a love song like “Ranek”. That’s just the meaning that I assign to my music personally; someone else may pull a totally different message from my music, and that’s great. There is no single message really, the real message is whatever connects with you, the listener.

JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

AC: – As a musician, of course there are tons of concerts I wish I could have attended— Coltrane & Monk at Carnegie Hall, Duke Ellington at the Newport Jazz Festival, Bird & Dizzy at Massey Hall, Joe Henderson at the Lighthouse, Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing, and the list goes on forever… I would also like to meet a lot of historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr., the Buddha, Abraham Lincoln, and Mahatma Gandhi. But of course the right answers to this question are the philanthropic ones— go back to the creation of the Treaty of Versailles in 1918 and warn them how badly that would end up, or go back to the 1400s to administer small pox vaccinations in the Americas, or introduce renewable energy technologies during the Industrial Revolution… I think there are too many things I would want to fix about our history to be able to decide on just one thing.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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