Interview with NYC saxophonist Bob Reynolds

DCV: Tell me about your latest CD?

BR: I’m incredibly proud of it. Couldn’t be happier. The record was recorded last year and will be out in late March/early April on the Barcelona jazz label Fresh Sound New Talent. It features 10 songs composed by me and an incredible band: Aaron Goldberg, piano and Rhodes; Reuben Rogers, bass; Eric Harland, drums; Mike Moreno, guitar; David Soler, pedal steel guitar. It is a very song-based record. The songs are the focus, not merely jumping-off points for extended solos. I would categorize it as melodic, groove-oriented progressive jazz. I explore a variety of settings within the 10 tracks: there are songs that are quartet with piano, with rhodes, or with guitar, quintet songs, a trio song, songs that have a pedal steel guitar, one song that I like to describe as what might happen if I spent a day in the studio with Brian Eno. It’s a very exciting mix, but it never feels disjunctive. There are 3 songs in odd meters -- 11/8, 15/8, and 9/4 -- and all are grooving so hard (thanks to the great band!) that you’d have to be alerted to know something “odd” was going on. It’s fresh, and hopefully lends itself to lots of repeat listening.

DCV: Your music seems accessible to a wide audience, yet to me it doesn't seem like you're dumbing down your playing or selling out. How do you think about your music in terms of commercially viability and artistic integrity?

BR: I would never dumb anything down. Why should something have to be of lesser quality to be enjoyable to lots of people? I believe that one shouldn’t have to compromise one’s artistic ambitions to reach people. I think the real issue is the quality of the communication. If you’re successful, that just means you’re doing a good job communicating your artistic message. There is a quality about my music that seems to make it appealing to more than just jazz fans. I think it has something to do with the fact that I love melody, strong grooves — which exist in swing, too — and vibe. It’s all about a vibe. I think it just comes back to trying to tell good stories. Are you telling a story that others would like to hear? Are you interacting with the band AND the audience, or are you just playing for yourself?

I began noticing on gigs down south that I would get a much stronger audience response when I performed my music than when I played a standard. Why? Because when I’m playing a standard, it’s background music to them. They’ve heard so many other people play it. When it’s mine, there’s something personal there. Audiences respond to that. All that said, every single time I put the sax on my mouth, I’m trying to be the best, and most creative, interactive, musical player I’m capable of being. I think if you get an audience onboard with you, they will follow whatever musical path you take them down.

DCV: What is your process when composing?

BR: Normally, I hear something and am compelled to get it out of my head. Sometimes it starts with a melody I hear while walking around or traveling. Most times it comes from a groove. It could be a bass line or a simple chord progression. I tend to hear the foundation first and then the melodies sort of show themselves to me. I’ve always loved simple melodies with dramatic chord progressions. Wayne Shorter is a master of the simple melody over the sophisticated harmony. As a composer, I loathe the sound of II V I’s and have always avoided them when I write, though I negotiate them all the time as a player. I draw inspiration from lots of non-jazz sources. The opening track of my album is based on a 2 bar harmonic progression and bass line I heard D’Angelo do on a record by the hip-hop artist Common.

I write at the piano, not the sax. I always write where I originally hear it. As a result, I have a lot of songs in keys that are uncharacteristically “tenor”, i.e. B, E, A, Db....

Many times I’ll have a short idea that waits around for a while for me to expand or develop it, other times stuff comes out fast, almost fully formed.

DCV: Who are your biggest influences right now?

BR: Kurt Rosenwinkel, Brian Blade Fellowship, and composers Thomas Newman, Mark Isham, Ralph Vaughn Williams, and Aaron Copeland. Also, I’m really into Kanye West’s “Late Registration” right now, and revisiting Sonny Rollins’ “Saxophone Colossus” - forgot how AMAZING it is! And though I’m on hiatus to avoid burnout, Radiohead has been my most exciting and influential discovery of the last 4 years.

DCV: How did it come about that Josh Redman put one of your tunes in his book?

BR: I met Josh at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1999 where we were both performing. I played with my quartet on the Garden Stage in a well-attended afternoon show. He was the sold-out closing act of the last festival of the millennium on the main stage. It just so happened that Reuben Rogers — who was Josh’s bass player at the time — was checking out my show because he was friends with my bass player. He told Josh about me and we were introduced later that night in the hotel lobby. We kept in touch over the years and he was always very nice to me. Last year, when I was preparing to record my album, I gave him a cd that had a few songs on it that I’d recorded in a Brooklyn living room. He was very encouraging of the music and when I showed him the finished product a few months later, he was so enthusiastic and felt that I’d captured something unique, something soulful. He went out of his way to help me get the CD in some people’s hands and provided lots of helpful feedback that helped me make some important decisions about everything from sequencing to publishing.

Last fall he asked me if I would be ok with him performing a song from my new album – Nine Lives – and I think I said something like “Are you SERIOUS?” So a couple weeks later I was at the Blue Note in New York and Josh was introducing my song and me and it was very surreal.

DCV: What kind of sideman work have you been doing in NYC?

BR: My bread and butter gig over the past 5 years has been with a singer-songwriter named Jonah Smith. Jonah plays a mean rhodes, writes fantastic songs and (though he’s a white Jewish guy from Syracuse) sings kind of like an old black man. He (and our band of five years) was recently signed to Relix Records and we finished recording a CD produced by Lee Townsend (Charlie Haden, Bill Frisell, Charlie Hunter) that’ll be out in May. I’ve also been recording and touring with another singer-songwriter named Nellie McKay. That band includes Lonnie Plaxico on bass and Carl Allen on drums. I recently recorded an album with Tom Harrell and Gregory Hutchinson for a guitarist named Rale Micic. I have performed or recorded with Willie Nelson, Jessica Simpson, Live at the Apollo’s Ray Chew and the Crew, Aaron Goldberg, Brian Blade, Reuben Rogers, Eric Harland, James Moody, Cindy Blackman, Bob Brookmeyer, Kevin Mahogany, Jam/Funk band Lettuce, Eric Krasno (of Soulive), Nathan East, Harvey Mason, and smooth jazz saxophonist Walter Beasley.

DCV: What do you see happening in the Jazz industry in the next decade?

BR: Hard to say. Everything is so DIY these days. I wonder if I’ll get to make another CD or if it will all be straight to iTunes? I think there are some very positive things out there. MySpace is developing into a positive medium to connect with like-minded music enthusiasts. We’ll see if all the response I’m getting there translates into album sales when the disc comes out. There’s also podcasts – which I’m just getting hip to. But there are all these specialized jazz shows and broadcasts, which make new music more accessible to interested listeners. I think jazz, music, trends, life....it’s all cyclical. I think we’re entering a new era of fusion. Not fusion with a capital F like in the 70’s, but there are just so many more influences that are being brought to the table and jazz is the ultimate platform for mixing and experimenting with different style. Probably after that, it will be time for a retro, return of the young lions thing. Who knows?

DCV: How do you think the scene has changed in NYC in recent years?

BR: Well, I’ve only been here for 5 years, but I would say it’s changed a lot. The young lions are no longer young and all who attempted to follow in their footsteps found a dissimilar fate. I wouldn’t say it’s worse, but it’s different. Speaking for myself, it’s taken time to get my bearings. I’m only now starting to come to terms with the fact that I don’t have to prove myself to anyone or follow in some path that I thought was the only way when I was in high school. I came here thinking that I had to go to all the jam sessions and prove that I was the baddest cat and that would lead to all the choice sideman gigs and eventually my own thing....wrong!!! I HATE lame jam sessions and avoid them at all costs. There is nothing musical about soloing over Airegin after 5 egotistical trumpet players have just gotten their rocks off and a belabored rhythm section is begrudgingly — or sloppily — chugging along beneath you.

I think less people go out to hear ‘jazz’ but there’s also more varieties of jazz to be heard. There’s more fragmentation but also more acceptance. The biggest problem I have with the New York jazz scene is that its audience is 90% jazz musicians. Why? Either those are the only people interested in the breed of jazz being played, or the musicians don’t know how to reach an audience. I didn’t get into music to perform for musicians alone.

New York is part legend and part myth. I do believe that people, myself included, construct idyllic visions of what life in NYC as a jazz musician must be like, but it’s not really like whatever you’re thinking! That said, if you really have a passion for the music you are playing, then there is nowhere else in the world like it. The best musicians you’ve ever heard of are based here, as are the best you’ve NEVER heard of, which is the real soul of the scene. That’s what New York is about. It keeps you on your toes, at the top of your game. It also bonds you with all these other fantastic musicians who are here to play at the highest level they can. Sacrifice is the common denominator. It’s easy to get lost, though. For me, New York has been as much about finding out who I’m not and what I don’t like as it has been the opposite.

DCV: You mentioned a while ago that you considering moving to the NW. Is the NYC scene wearing you down?

BR: You know, New York can wear on you, but it can also be so invigorating. I think one needs space in order to love it again. I know I won’t be here forever, but I know I’ll always miss it when I leave. This is my first time visiting the Northwest and I’m interested to check out the scene, but New York, for the moment, is definitely home.

Bob Reynolds will be performing with the Lawrence Williams project on Friday, March 31st at the Blue Monk (3341 SE Belmont st., Portland 97214 ph: 503.595.0575)

Check out Bob's web site to hear clips of his latest album, I highly recommend it.

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