There are so many records I could choose from my whole life, including things like Rubber Soul. Or Pet Sounds! I was 11 years old when I got that and I played it for two months – my parents had to put a moratorium on it! But I’ve gone for Bottoms Up by Illinois Jacquet, which came out in 1968. Not only did it teach me how to play sax, but it was also such a beautifully made record. In a way, it was just a regular jazz record – they went into the studio and played live, as you do. But it was a little masterpiece in the way it turned out – so well recorded and sequenced.
It was produced by a guy named Bob Porter, who was doing a lot of the bluesier kind of jazz records that were coming out in the late 1960s and early 1970s on Prestige Records in New York. Around that time there were very few recordings of that kind of jazz: a quartet with a pianist and a string bass and a drummer – that wasn’t getting much time in the studios. It was Fender bass and electric piano – which I also like! Six years after I heard Bottoms Up, around 1976 when I came to New York, there was a kind of renaissance and they were making lots of records like that again. In many ways, my whole career has been a result of being born at the right time! I arrived in New York when they needed an affordable sax player that could do what I did.
I was 16 or 17 when I heard it – a couple of years after it came out. It was through a friend of mine, a guitar player called Duke Robillard. He had a gift. Not just for playing really well, but also for introducing younger guys like myself to great records – and he’s still doing it. Back then, that’s how you found out about stuff – you went to the record store and hung out, or to people’s basements and listened to things. In fact, I don’t think I even heard it at Duke’s house – he just told me about it and I ran out to the store and bought it.
Around that time, I began going to see Jacquet playing live up in Boston, so it’s hard to differentiate the recordings and the live performance. There’s nothing that affects you like a live performance; but the recordings are there for you to go over and over again – you can get the details. He was a masterful saxophonist. In fact, at that time in the early 1970s, I don’t think there was anybody that had his mastery of the instrument – the control, the imagination, the feeling. And I wasn’t the only person that thought this. It wasn’t written about in the press very much, but a lot of musicians said the same thing. He had been very, very famous in his youth in the 1940s; but by the 1970s he was much better known in Europe than the States – apart, perhaps, among middle-age black audiences or people that had been to Jazz at the Philharmonic.
For me, he never played better than he did in the early 1970s. Like most jazz musicians, he didn’t stand still – he was absorbing things all the time. He was harmonically much more sophisticated; and he’d worked all sorts of things from the intervening years into his style, but in a way that you had to be paying attention to notice, which a lot of people didn’t do. Once someone gets categorised, people stop listening closely.
I tried to copy everything on the record, to climb inside the performances. It’s not the only way to learn how to play jazz, but it’s certainly a good one. You learn a lot by studying someone that carefully. Hopefully, you find your way out eventually, and it just becomes an element in your playing. When you’re young, your ears are like sponges – you’re capable of taking on a lot of stuff. I used to wonder why older guys didn’t do it any more, and now I know! Your brain kind of hardens. But, also, I think everything impacts on you that way when you’re growing up – it’s part of being young. Things are, in effect, more exciting.
There are definite advantages to being older, though – I remember thinking: ‘Jeez, I can’t wait till I get older to be able to play something with that kind of gravity!’. I’ve been listening to older musicians all my life, as well as younger ones, so I’m very appreciative of certain things that come with age…
This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Jazzwise. Never miss an issue – subscribe today!