Interview with Dave Wilson: The age-old balance in the arts is the left-brain right brain balance: Video

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Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist Dave Wilson. An interview by email in writing.

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

Dave Wilson: – I grew up in Bronxville, NY, a small town just north of New York City. I played clarinet all the way through High School, and after listening to my first John Coltrane record, Live at the Village Vanguard (and specifically My Favorite Things), got interested in Jazz and the Jazz Saxophone. I found that I loved to improvise, and the saxophone was my vehicle, and I fell in love with the tenor in particular.

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

DW: – I have always played careful attention to my equipment, especially on the tenor, but also on the soprano (my second favorite saxophone, as well as the alto and the clarinet as well. I have played 5 or 6 tenors exclusively in my career, all of them Selmer Mark VI’s. I am currently playing a 1959 tenor that I really dig, along with a Ted Klum “Focus Tone” model mouthpiece. Developing a personal sound for me has to do with certain exercises, like long tones or mastering the overtone series (the latter of which is very important, and has come down through woodwind education through the likes of Joe Allard and then Dave Liebman and also a teacher of mine Tom Stohman), but also to what I listen or listened to, and tried to emulate, or just had in my head as I grew into a player. In this I’m talking about matters of style, and some of this involved the transcribing of solos from some of the solos, which I continue to do today, but early on was just playing along to recordings. As I mention elsewhere here, and right below, I regularly do things for physical exercise, and this helps immeasurably with the wind and strength for playing these instruments.

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

DW: – As far actual Rhythm I combine playing tunes, exercises, reading, etc. in strict time almost always with a metronome or a drum machine. There are certain rhythmic patterns I might study, but I am more a spontaneous type of improviser; perhaps I should work more with rhythmic concepts, especially world or poly rhythms. I do work some with two again three, 3 against 2. I work a lot with tunes themselves; trying to memorize a tune and play it over again to incorporate it within my soul. I could really expand on that concept. It is very important to me to be maintain good physical condition. I go to the gym 3-5 times weekly, and daily try to get some kind of physical exercise. For my core, my strength, my wind. This is crucial for being to play with strength in my arms and hands, standing upright, and having good and steady breath support.

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?

DW: – I can play the inside/outside thing, but perhaps what is guiding me is the audience, who I am playing for, all these years, especially playing largely in Central PA and the Mid Atlantic area, but all over the world. I came up listening to all the stages of Coltrane, and the bebop masters like Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley, Sonny Stitt, but also to Joe Lovano (who I studied with briefly) and Michael Brecker, and as well to Dave Liebman. I dig it all. But I’m probably ultimately a melodic player, with maybe a certain penchant for Lyricism or consonance if you will. Also, this is what happened that night, at that place, Chris’ in Philadelphia (a city sometimes described at for Blues and Ballads-maybe dated, that expression). I have played a few strictly Avant Garde-Free Jazz gigs, but that’s it. It’s probably not me in the end, or for very few. When I play modal tunes I might play certain scales or patterns or play from the hip, and really try to be as spontaneous as I can with these, and with tunes with changes I can be old fashioned in a way, and play very much off of the guide tones, the chord tones, with certain harmonic substitutions (I use the Diminished Scale minor third Dominant 7th chords for example). I am not much of a “Pattern” player, but have learned some over the years, and might fall back on some of these, or expand on these in the subconscious sense. I have been influenced by certain teachers including the great Philadelphia guitarist and jazz guru Steve Giordano, but also the words of Lee Konitz to take a tune (hopefully a cool tune, ha ha) and play it over and over, memorizing the melody and chord changes, so you incorporate it in your soul and it can just flow from you. Lee Konitz said at one point, learn ten (or 15 or 20) tunes in just such a way. When you have to read a tune off of paper or your I pad it can take away from just such an approach. Much of what I played on the recording here was just such an approach, with just these kind of selections, where I had played them so much, in practice and out live, that I didn’t need the music and it just flowed from within, and on a good night where the vibe was relaxed.

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

DW: – How to prevent? It depends on what we’re defining as disparate influences; are we talking about musical ideas, or our psychology, or the crowd? I’m not that obsessive compulsive that certain things are or are not flooding my mind as I improvise. If I am relaxed enough I can “let it flow” (to quote basketball legend Dr. J Julius Erving). If I’m not, then it can be hard to be as creative. Or if something isn’t right physically like an injury or not enough sleep or perhaps lack of preparation? Sometimes the disparate influences can be the crowd, especially if they are not overly friendly, or receptive, or not clapping or what have you (that can kind of bug me); and it’s a lack of interest and not necessarily hostility. Lately, I really try to look at the crowd in general, or I will if they seem to be receptive. Music performance is a two-way street: you have the player and the listener. They said Sonny Rollins often played his best in a small area like a club or bar as opposed to a big concert hall. I like large crowds; they can get me focused and grooving.

JBN.S: – What do you love most about your new album 2019: <One Night at Chris>, how it was formed and what you are working on today.

DW: – This was really me that night, in all the phases of the music that is important to me. And I don’t get a chance to play as much of my own music, that is really true to myself, as I would like. I love to play out, in front of people, and get paid for it, but as I have described elsewhere in this article, there are boundaries; it’s got to be fun; it has to be something that is beneficial. When I have a chance to play some of my own music, that perhaps I have sweated over to get to a certain level, and with the right people, (such as Kirk, Tony, and Dan), and everything clicks, (such as it did that one night at Chris’ Jazz Café)…then this is magic, and it redeems so much of everything else.

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

DW: – Are we talking about the soul as the creative side, here? If so than the age-old balance in the arts is the left-brain right brain balance. The left brain, the analytic side is super, super important. But so is the right brain. There must be a balance. But the more left brained you are the right side, the creative, can suffer. In music you can be a great “reader” and not such a great improviser. Or vice versa. It depends on what you want to do. In another sense, expression in music, that is feeling, emotion, creativity, beauty, must come from the soul. Now, that is a challenge!

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

DW: – I think we have referenced this a little bit earlier in the interview. What do the people want? Sometimes they don’t want something in their face. They want more background; they don’t want to be challenged. Or they might want something that is not too complex, or not too dissonant, jazz that’s a little happier. I’m okay with this. And on the one hand I might want to get in and out of there; get paid, keep everyone happy, and still not compromise myself too much.  At this stage, I really don’t want to play too much rock, no horn bands, no Motown, no rock bands, no blues bands. Now, if it was with some one famous or it paid a lot of money, I would consider it. Ha ha! One thing I really believe in, feel, and this is pretty obvious, you are what you play. If I’m going to play a lot of “rock” then it’s going to take away from the jazz playing, and my evolution on my instrument. And this is especially true if you’re mixing things up radically in the same gig. For more than 25 years I have been playing a pretty fair amount of New Orleans/Traditional/Dixieland jazz music. How did this happen? That’s where some of the work was or is. My rationale? It swings. We mix it up. I dig it. I play like a couple of my heroes from this area of the music: Bud Freeman, Frankie Trumbauer, Lester Young, even Bob Wilber, Pete Fountain. It’s authentic, often misunderstood. It’s too bad these two camps are often divided, with not always respect from one to the other. And the work is out there. As I have said, I like to work. Locally at least on the club date scene, a lot of the work is in duos and trios. I don’t like to play to tapes, I like live music. I can work with a single piano or even a guitar and make music. And there is minimum $ standard to work for. I have been a member of Local 294, American Federation of Musicians for over 30 years, and am currently on the board of directors. I have strong feelings towards labor. In conclusion, in one sense you do what you must do, it is a business I feel, but I do not want to compromise myself too much.

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

DW: – I’ll share one story from a recording session for Spiral, about 10 years ago, 2009. It was my first time recording with some really great players (though I had shared the stage with some): Phil Markowitz on piano, Tony Marino on bass (who I play with quite a bit since then), Adam Nussbaum on drums. We were recording at what is now my favorite place to record, Red Rock Studios in the Poconos (Great jazz community including Dave Liebman and the late Phil Woods live there). Anyway, we were doing a warmup/rehearsal the night before the recording, and I called Friend of the Devil (Love the Grateful Dead!). Anyway these guys started playing the tune at this fast tempo, I wasn’t keeping up, stopped the tune and went over to Adam and said something like, Man, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this, keep up with you guys, do this recording. I was scared. Adam said something like “Don’t worry, we’re here for you. We’re going to make this work!” And the session was great, it went fine. Phil Markowitz, and the Tony and Adam, were great on this. My recording sessions have always been memorable. I must confess I do pretty well in the studio.  I was playing with the Dave Stahl Big Band (great trumpet player, big influence) and Wynton Marsalis sat in with us for an hour memorable.

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

DW: – There is such a thing as the new standards, and these can be from the 60’s and 70’s through today. What is wrong with a tune if it is good? Nothing. And what is the good? This is an ethical question. The good can be in the eye of the beholder. I have nothing against any form of music, or musicians playing their music. If it is music, it must be good, but it might be better for others than that kind is for me. But, as well, here we are, almost 2020. And so many of today’s young people don’t like or listen to music, period; or their scope is narrow. I had a student of mine say once that the only people his age that he knew who liked jazz were the ones that played it. So, many of my students like jazz and have good natural ability to start with because they are exposed to it in the home, or their parents have musical ability or interests. It is aptitude and environment/nurture. And let’s not forget about the schools, or the media or culture itself. There are so many niches so many places for different forms of music in our culture, in the world. Music will never go away. Let’s hope jazz does not and does not get pushed further and further away. I don’t believe it will. But it has to evolve in some manner.

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

DW: – I think for jazz musicians like Coltrane, and Parker and Miles and Sonny Stitt and others especially in the ‘50’s this was their life. There was no turning back. It was (and to some extent still is) a Black Music, and African American Music with roots deep in history. If I can venture to say, it was a great avenue, it was a thing to do, but it had its roadblocks, it’s distractions, it’s pitfalls, but it’s rewards.  When I am playing, I really try to get into that zone, connect with the spirit. The spirit is universal. If people are keyed in, they can feel it through the music. So many cannot. If the meaning of life contains a spirit it can triumph and be demonstrated through music. Jazz improvisation, spontaneous composition, comes right from the soul. The best is unfettered by the constraints of our civilization. It flows from the soul

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

DW: – One thing? Get rid of free or ridiculously inexpensive prices for recorded music, so there would be better compensation for recorded music again. Platforms such as Spotify, Apple Music have cheapened recorded music (even YouTube) so that the artist is no longer fairly compensated. And people (even I find myself) just eat it up, they, for the most part don’t care, just go with the flow

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

DW: – I listen to a lot of the bebop masters, and in part, I used to listen to a lot of Joe Lovano and still do, and as well to Michael Brecker and Dave Liebman. I really enjoy Chris Potter and Eric Alexander. I still listen to Coltrane, though nowhere as much. The past two years or so I have been transcribing a fair amount of Hank Mobley and Sonny Stitt, which is something that is done quite a bit, to get to the heart of the Be-Bop feel and expression. I enjoy listening to saxophonists throughout the history of jazz up into today. I also like Pat Metheny, John Scofield, and Keith Jarret. I have always been a bit of a Deadhead; Jerry Garcia had more lyricism, expression and spontaneity then the vast majority. I probably cannot resist covering another Grateful Dead tune, having done treatments of both Friend of the Devil and Cassidy. Lately, I have also been listening to, trying to discover, mostly singer/songwriter lyrical almost romantic Pop Music type of songs, mostly from the 1970’s and beyond, with tunes, compositions that I really dig, that hit me square in the middle, and that I can maybe use (or maybe not) and transform into a jazz tune. For Example: Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (as done by Glen Campbell), Christopher Cross “Sailing”, the group Ambrosia, Jefferson Airplane’s “Coming Back to Me”, Gino Vanelli’s “I Just Want to Stop”, George Straight’s “I Can Still Make Cheyenne”, to name a few. But also, Kamasi Washington’s “The Rhythm Changes”, Jimmy Forest’s “This Can’t Be Love”, Bill Evan’s (the saxophonist) “Escape”.  Last week I listened a lot to the Coltrane/Johnny Hartman collaboration, Ballads. Lately I find I like a good tune.

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

DW: – What we do is a very vibrant, exciting, and compelling type of contemporary Jazz music, across a wide spectrum of styles, and utilizing good people. I am interested in communicating with the audience, showing them respect, hoping for the same, while being true to my musical self. I am an entertainer yes, but also an artist. The recording is a document of one evening of music recorded live, no overdubs, no second takes and with all the nuances, surprises and magic known as Jazz, and also a statement about Dave Wilson the saxophonist and jazz artist, composer and arranger, and interpreter of the music we call jazz.

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

DW: – I’d like to go to the Keystone Korner in Berkley, CA in the early 1960’s and see Coltrane with McCoy, Jimmy, and Elvin. I’d like to be backstage at a Grateful Dead Concert in the 1970’s; I had a chance once but blew it off. I’d like to be in the New York Yankee dugout in 1961 sitting on the bench with Mantle, Maris, and Whitey Ford.

JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

DW: – What got you into this business, what you do? Do you play a musical instrument? That’s two questions!

JBN.S: – Thank you for answers. I am a Jazz critic and i do not play a musical instrument …

JBN.S: – So, putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

DW: – I really try to balance everything and leave a lot of time for my home life with my lovely wife Lisa and our three cats. We like to travel, go to ball games, go out to eat, get exercise. I have been teaching privately since the late 1980’s and enjoy this a lot, though I am not as active with this as I used to be. I like to think that I am a good teacher of the saxophone, of the clarinet, of jazz, and have also done clinics on the college level.  I have a side business I am also invested in, Dave Wilson’s Musical Instruments, buying and selling mostly used woodwind and brass musical instruments, vintage and contemporary, student and professional. Please everyone, feel free to visit my music and the business at davewilsonmusic.org.  A lot of my professional musical life has been spent developing as a musician, but also getting ready for the gig, whatever it is, whatever day or week it or month is, and this has been going on for over 30 years. And this is the task of the professional musician, to be ready, to do our best, to do what can do and try to be content with it.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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