Talkin’ Sax at Litchfield Jazz Fest
The Litchfield Jazz Festival completed its 17th successful run on Aug. 12, continuing a recipe of bringing some of the world’s greatest jazz musicians to the rolling hills of northwest Connecticut. This year’s fest included amazing sets from The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, harmonica virtuoso Grégoire Maret, Vince Giordano & The Nighthawks, the historic Sojourner Truth Project led by bassist Avery Sharpe, the Ambrose Akinmusire Quintet, the Benny Green Quartet and a Kansas City swing session led by guitarist Dave Stryker and vocalist Kevin Mahogany.
The saxophone was front-and-center throughout the fest, which presented the Miguel Zenón Quartet, the Donny McCaslin Group and an incredible tribute to hard-bop saxophonist George Coleman headed up by baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan.
On the final day of the festival, Zenón, McCaslin, Smulyan and Litchfield Jazz Camp Director Don Braden sat down for a live conversation with WBGO radio host Michael Bourne.
The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Michael Bourne: There are a lot of cats that double and triple and quadruple and play all of those different instruments. Grover Washington played everything from soprano to baritone saxophone. And I asked him once, “Do you play differently? Do you have a different personality with each of those horns?” And he said, “Yes.” But you cats, I think of you as one-horn guys. What makes you, Donny, a tenor player?
Donny McCaslin: My father would play piano, vibes and marimba. And he had a group called Warmth. They played these Great American Songbook tunes—Cal Tjader, Latin jazz, r&b tunes. Their saxophone player was like a hippie. This guy had a big beard, tie-dyed shirt. I remember looking in his horn one time, down the bell, there was all this condensation and a cigarette butt floating in the middle of it [laughs]. In the bell of his horn! He would play these wild solos that would whip the audience into a frenzy. All of that made an impression on me as a kid. I made an impulsive decision when I was 12 to go into beginning orchestra. My father asked me what instrument, and I said, “Tenor sax.” I think it was because this guy was so charismatic.
Bourne: But did you try the other horns?
McCaslin: No. It just felt like the appropriate one for me. I didn’t really give it much thought.
Bourne: And do you play soprano?
McCaslin: I do play soprano. In fact, there were a couple of years where I was playing with Danilo Pérez’s band that I was playing primarily soprano, and hardly any tenor. And I play a lot of flute and a touch of clarinet. It’s when I play with Maria Schneider’s band that I play the doubles.
Bourne: Miguel, how is it that I think of you as an alto player? What is it about that voice that is your voice?
Miguel Zenón: It’s similar to what Donny said. When I started in music, I had to choose an instrument. I was attracted to music as a whole. I wasn’t attracted to an instrument, per se. I wanted to play the piano, but I couldn’t play the piano in marching band. I had a friend who played the alto and already knew a couple tunes. So, I said, “OK, that’s fine. I’ll play that.” I also had someone in my family who had an alto already. Eventually, of course, I got to play a little bit of tenor, a little bit of baritone, just for work, you know—a soprano, too. But I always felt the alto was the natural thing. It was probably because it’s the first instrument I ever played.
Gary Smulyan: It’s also a resonance thing. Your voice really responds to a certain set of pitches. You can express yourself on that instrument. I can’t play tenor at all. I tried. I played tenor for about two months, and I was just like, “I can’t.”
Smulyan: Because that range, that sound, and the fact that it was in B-flat transposition instead of E-flat. I just had no affinity at all for the tenor saxophone. I just had no feeling for it. I couldn’t play at all. I couldn’t even deal with the sound of it. It just sounded so unnatural to me. I respond to the baritone because that’s my voice. If I play alto, I can’t. It messes with my head.
Don Braden: The physical part of it also makes a difference. For me, the soprano is little, and the sound comes out faster. It might be a fraction of a millisecond faster, but I can feel that. It’s more responsive than when I play tenor.
Bourne: But which one is more of your personality—the faster one or the slower one?
Braden: Definitely the slower one. By the way, I should mention this because we’re talking about how we got started: They gave me the tenor because I was big.
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