Interview With Bob Mintzer, November, 2005
Conducted by Andy Scott of the Royal Northern College of Music
Used With Permission
Andy Scott: It's fantastic that you were able to be the special guest at the 5th RNCM Saxophone Day in Manchester, and also work with the RNCM sax students in class and concert settings! Did you enjoy your Manchester experience? (apart from the chili in the canteen)
Bob Mintzer: I enjoyed the visit to RNCM very much! Thank you for inviting me to be a part of this wonderful gathering. I was quite impressed at the level of musicianship I saw in all the performances and demonstrations. The ensembles, soloists, and composers (yourself included!) were just great! In my opinion, we need many more of these kinds of gatherings, where players young and old can congregate, compare notes, and premiere new music. Really the only change I would make is to put less chili powder in the chili. That stuff could kill you!
AS: In your first class on the Thursday one of the RNCM student saxophone quartets performed your 1st Sax Quartet to you? What were your feelings about their performance? And presumably you must hear vastly different interpretations of your sax quartets on your travels worldwide?
BM: The students did a very nice job with the quartet. There is obviously a very good ensemble sensibility at RNCM and a strong work ethic. I was honored and impressed at the way the kids handled the music. They considered lots of detail in deciding on an approach, and the piece wound up having a nice personality and sound that reflected these 4 players. It was also nice to see something like this being played that is out of the mainstream of classical saxophone repertoire. We need more pieces that straddle genre and style.
AS: What general advice would you offer to young musicians (such as the RNCM students) about the music business?
BM: In my humble opinion, the music business is very much like other business in that one's success is determined by how strong the product is, and how adept you are at delivering that product to the public. It all starts with having a strong passion and curiosity for the 12 tones, working on the music and making decisions about how and what you want to say with your playing, writing, etc. Part of the process of becoming a mature musician involves playing a lot with others. Writing music as a vehicle for your playing, organizing ensembles, commissioning works, and setting up performance situations is a good way to guarantee that you are playing enough. Getting with a group of people and playing together on a regular basis is a nice way to develop a concept and ensemble sound that has some personality. Also, when you have an opportunity to play with an ensemble, be sure to come to the table with a positive and cooperative attitude. People like this, and will be more likely to call you back or recommend you to others. Leave your baggage and self doubts at home! Of course, come prepared so you can really play your best, and take a proactive roll in the rehearsal and interpretive process. Join the team! In terms of marketing yourself, there are many ways to use the internet, web sites, email, and the various download organizations to seek further exposure. If your music is strong, people will notice. Word travels fast! Also, one playing situation generally leads to another. Someone might hear you play and recommend you for a subsequent gig. You will meet people along the way that may be able to help you at some point. You can start a website, take out an ad in a magazine, and join one of the many web-based organizations that promote artists. Record companies can be helpful in terms of distributing your music and gaining exposure. They can also be totally unhelpful if your music is not a priority to them. Choose a recording company carefully! Sometimes small is better. Sometimes doing it yourself is better yet!
AS: On the Thursday and Friday you also worked with the RNCM Big Band, who was working on a programme exclusively of your charts. How do you approach working with a student big band for the first time only a day or two before a concert?
BM: Well, I try to surmise the level of players I'm working with, and see what kind of shape the music is in based on what sort of preparation took place prior to my arrival. Like in any ensemble, I then try to address phrasing issues, inflection, dynamics, rhythmical considerations, and all the particulars that give the music a spark and personality. Hopefully the band has learned the notes before I get there. Sometimes I work with the rhythm section and make sure that they are providing a solid foundation for the band to build on that is working with the music. I play drums, piano, guitar and bass as well as woodwinds. Hence, I know the language of the rhythm section and can generally help out in a productive way. I try not to be too meddling, though. There is a fine line between being helpful and controlling. Also I make a point of stressing the importance of knowing the bigger picture in the music. That is, who has the primary theme, who is accompanying, what is the form of the tune, what is the harmonic structure. This is essential in order for everyone to be able to place their notes appropriately, and play the music with a sense of grace and forward motion. In the rehearsal process I select an order of songs, decide who is soloing on which songs, and generally be sure everyone is clear on the "road map" of each song. Improvised sections are generally opened up, so players need to know when and how they proceed to the next section. After all this is addressed, I try to surrender to whatever level we are at, and play the concert with a positive attitude, trying to lend support and a sense of fun to the musicians at hand.
AS: On Friday it was the first day of the RNCM International Wind Festival, this day was billed as an 'Education Day' during which you presented a talk about 'Jazz in the Classroom'. Could you give us your general thoughts about the way jazz education is developing (or not)?
BM: Jazz, or the art of combining improvisation with composed material has, in my opinion, reached a level of classical status. Composers like Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie have created music that is timeless and vital. Like any other art form, jazz needs to be presented in music schools in such a way that students are able to grasp the bigger picture while also getting inside the music and studying it's various components. This coupled with lots of playing and writing opportunities makes for a fertile scene where musicians can congregate, work on the music, and hopefully develop relationships that will endure well beyond the school experience. Bands like Take 6, Pat Metheny's first band, and others developed around the university experience. I see this happening more and more around the world.
AS: What would be your advice to a student that wanted to improvise but hadn't done to date, for example someone that was trying to break in to improvising but maybe didn't have the confidence and didn't know where to start?
BM: Improvisation, like any other form of playing, involves having a vocabulary and a working mechanism that one is familiar with. I learned how to improvise by listening to jazz players play solos, and then trying to mimic what they were playing. In figuring out what notes were being played, I also considered what the harmonic, phrasing (dynamics, accents, pitch, vibrato, glissando, etc.) and rhythmical implications were. Eventually I was able to put a few phrases together that enabled me to create alternate melodies over fixed harmonic structures. Learning tunes that are typical vehicles for jazz improvisation is a good place to explore as well. Charlie Parker tunes are rich with information in the be bop style. Eventually you can start putting the notes together in the moment based on having practiced these tunes and various melodic shapes that work over those tunes. Again, transcribing solos of others and learning lots of songs is generally the route taken to achieve this.
Learning scales and patterns based on the various scales is also essential. You must be able to refer to a certain tonality without thinking about what notes are in the scale. Playing some piano was always essential to me. I was able to connect melody with various harmonic structures sitting at a piano. Check out my etude books (14 Jazz and Funk Etudes, 14 Funk and Blues Etudes, 15 Easy Jazz Funk and Blues Etudes, 12 Contemporary Jazz Etudes). They address the improvisational process in a specific way.
AS: Your saxophone sound, as well as that of your writing, is very distinctive. What are you aiming for with your tone? Who have been influences that have helped you achieve this? And what is your sax and set-up?
BM: Well, I try to make a nice sound on my instrument as well as with my compositions. I try for variety, shape, evolution, and forward motion in all that I do. The players whom I admire in this regard are Lester Young, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Hank Jones, and so many others!! Some of my favorite composers are Stravinsky, Mozart, Ravel, Thad Jones, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock, to name a few. I've always played on Selmer mark 6 saxophones, generally of an older vintage from the mid 1950's. I play a Freddie Gregory mouthpiece (7*) with Vandoren V16 reeds (3 1/2).
AS: The Big Band concert on the Saturday was well attended and received, what were your thoughts about the band, sax section and concert?
BM: I thought the band did a good job considering all things. They certainly played the notes with a sense of enthusiasm and spirit. Like in most situations of this kind, the level of performance is contingent upon how much exposure and experience the players have had with this kind of music. A band that rehearses 3 times a week and has listening sessions once or more times a week, and is in a school with a rigorous jazz curriculum will play a certain way. The band that rehearses once a week in a school where jazz is considered an extra-curricular activity rather than a serious art form will play in a different way. Regardless, I try to make the best of whatever is happening.
AS: Moving on to the Sunday, the final day of the RNCM IWF and the RNCM Saxophone Day itself. You gave a public masterclass in the morning during which you played with the Sax Assault rhythm section that were booked for this session with you (Gwilym Simcock - piano, Ollie Collins - bass, Elliot Henshaw - drums). There seemed to be a tremendous 'buzz' from the audience as the four of you worked together for the first time ever, and in public! How did you feel at the time?! And if possible, could you advise us of a couple of the key points that you convey during a class such as this one?
BM: It was a pleasure to play with Gwilym, Ollie, and Elliot! They are experienced musicians who display a sense of openness and cooperation that is essential in a musical meeting of this kind. We were able to come together and find common ground off which to create some nice music. One of the essential elements in making this happen is having the ability to listen! My approach is to take the stance of trying to "understand" rather than "be understood". I leave lots of space in my playing so that I can hear what the other players are playing, and also afford them the space to respond to what I am playing. In theory, this should be a conversation. Good conversationalists are articulate, sensitive to others, and engaging. I think we achieved this in our performance.
AS: The Apollo Sax Quartet commissioned a new Sax Quintet from you that we all premiered on the Sunday evening, 'New England Autumn' a fantastic couple of pieces! What are your thoughts about the writing process, practicalities, and deadline! Rehearsal and performance of the Quintet........ There’s an easy question :)
BM: I've always been attracted to the whole writing process, especially as it pertains to creating an environment in which to play. It is always a challenging puzzle in which I try to consider who I am writing for, what sort of feelings I wish to convey, and any other objectives that may come into play. It was a pleasure to write for the Apollo quartet. They have a very distinctive sound and style that is quite broad and interesting. I thought the piece turned out well. I'm always writing for something or other, so the machine is generally well-oiled. The improvisatory process definitely comes into play with composition. A few notes generally suggest the next few notes, very much the way a conversation unfolds in the moment. The hard part is revising and tweaking the piece once the structure and general shape is in place. I'm quite obsessive in these matters.
AS: The Triple Bill Gala Concert on the Sunday night that concluded the RNCM Sax Day - Apollo Sax Quartet, yourself with rhythm section, and finally Sax Assault, quite a stylistic 'crossover'. What did you make of this?!
BM: I thought the Sunday concert was amazing! I like the concept of mixing different styles of music. Keeps things interesting. Good music is good music, and generally innovative music is the result of this very mixing process of different styles.
AS: My 9-year old son, Stanley, said the best part of the gig was when you and Simon Willescroft 'had a fight' when you guested in the last number that Sax Assault played!! Who won (only joking!)?
BM: Well, everyone won! Simon is an exciting player and he wowed the audience with his great playing. I did my thing, which involves more space and a different kind of intensity. I thought it fit together very nicely. I basically try to play the music at hand rather than compete. At this point in my life I don’t feel I have to prove anything to anyone. I try to play my best, that's all.
AS: Thanks Bob! As in 2002 when you visited Manchester, you've been an inspiration to everyone!! All the best with your week with the Yellowjackets at Ronnie Scott’s club in London, and safe journey back home to USA.
BM: Thanks Andy. And special thanks to you, Rob Buckland, the Apollo Sax Quartet, and RNCM for hosting such an inspiring gathering of musicians and great music.
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