|Written by Skip Spratt|
Bob Mintzer is a consummate musician. – player, teacher and composer who enjoys many different styles of music. Put simply: he just feels lucky that he’s able to do it all and doesn’t see that changing for quite a while – something sure to make his legions of fans very happy.
Many Saxophone Journal readers will instantly know the name Bob Mintzer. Whether you have played his charts for big band or enjoyed the recordings of The Yellowjackets, you’ve likely heard his music.
For pictures and a comprehensive discography, visit bobmintzer.com .
I was signaling the soundman to turn on the EWI. We did have monitors for the vocals and my Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI).
We play all different size venues from 50,000 to 100 people in the audience. Honestly, sometimes the little ones are more enjoyable, but not always. It really depends on the audience and the sound on stage, how well we hear or don’t hear each other on stage.
The webmaster is a gentleman named Allen Hurt who lives in Boston. With all due respect, it’s totally him. He put it together and maintains it. He has dug up all kinds of recordings that I can’t even remember. He’s really diligent about hosting the site and, being a musician himself, knows how to present the information in a sensible and creative way. He’s been incredible putting this thing together.
I didn’t! (Laughs) He found all this stuff. It’s amazing.
I think so. It’s a mode of communication and an expression. It’s what musicians DO. Whether it is in a performance situation or in a teaching environment, the need is there. Lots of important information was passed down to me by older and more experienced musicians. I attempt to pass things on in the same way.
That’s one motivation for being a composer and arranger. The other motivation for me is the joy that comes with putting the pieces of the musical puzzle together – so to speak. There is gratification in trying to construct an interesting musical work.
It’s hard to say. I generally work on big band pieces for a week or two, working on them a few hours at a time. With a busier schedule, you kind of sneak in some writing whenever you can. The initial ideas come quickly but then the real time is spent going over it many times. It takes time to revise, refine and hone the thing into something that is shapely and beautiful.
About two years ago I started using the Sibelius software with a laptop. I’m using Sibelius 3. I have Sibelius 4 but haven’t loaded it yet.
It was chance. I ran into a rep from Sibelius - Bruce Munson. He gave me his card and told me to give him a call if I wanted to check out the software. Two days later Jeff Jarvis of Kendor emailed me and said, “You are one of the last guys who is not sending us Finale or Sibelius files.” I thought it might be a sign from up above. So I contacted Bruce and got the software. I was about to embark on an etude book called 12 Contemporary Jazz Etudes.
I still am. I’m real excited about it.
Yes, I do. People seem to get something out of them. The idea was to come up with a book of transcriptions if you will. I wanted something between a transcribed solo and an actual etude. With these pieces someone could simply learn by rote and then further explore articulation, general shape and sound. There’s the play-along CD that also features myself playing each etude. There is an explanation that sets up each etude telling the player what kind of things to look for and some guidance in terms of getting through each etude. They are pretty comprehensive.
My thing is that you can tell a student what to play but they’re not going to really know what to do with the notes. You can tell them what notes to play but it’s not only about the notes. It’s the treatment of the notes. That’s why listening is such an integral part of learning how to play. The idea of these books was to have something to listen to, see the notes go by and kind of see what one might do with those notes.
I think it all arrived pretty much at the same time. I think some things were written at the piano. Some were written on airplanes. I have certain shapes and progressions that I use over and over again. I tried to put something together based upon the structure or outline of the tune I was trying to write.
I don’t know. That’s what I do. It’s just the way I hear things. I think it comes from a result of your environment. I grew up in New York playing sessions and with jazz groups. Working with Steve Gadd, Don Grolnick, Will Lee, and John Tropei and some of these guys, there was a certain New York funk sound and shape that was very influential on my writing and in these books. Probably you will detect some of that influence in these books. Everyone has their influences. Through the process of leading a band, writing and playing with other bands, you use your influences to develop them into something you can call your own.
Oh, yeah, the “huddleyadahs” (He sings huddleyadah and laughs.) You know that refers to all the Sanborn and Brecker imitators who wind up being a grotesque caricature of the original. It doesn’t really capture the essense of the player. They just take some of the obvious devices and just beat them into submission.
That’s hard to say. It became apparent to me early on that in order to stay busy as a musician you really had to explore a lot of different avenues. That’s what I’ve always done. I enjoy the diversity of all the different things I do. I like writing as much as playing. I enjoy teaching. I like a variety of styles of music, that kind of makes my composing and playing somewhat eclectic. That’s just who I am. It’s not for everybody but that’s the path I’ve chosen.
Gosh. The long extended solos Coltrane would do where the piano player would lay out. Jimmy Garrison would beat something along and might eventually fall off the truck. There’d be Coltrane and Elvin flailing away. When I was a young man coming up in New York, frequently I’d end up playing with a drummer for hours. Maybe we couldn’t find a bass player or piano player at that particular time so we’d just play duos. I’ve always approached playing the tenor saxophone in a very rhythmical way. It’s a big focus of what I do - hence the phrase, “I’ve think I was a drummer in another life.” I’ve always been so taken by the drums, rhythms, patterns and grooves. It’s an integral part of being a composer and bandleader. Being able to communicate with a drummer and know that language makes it all sort of fit together.
I’ve played with a LOT of drummers. As I think back, there was Buddy Rich, Mel Lewis, Louis Bellson and percussionists Tito Puente, Don Alias and Mongo SantaMaria. There were a lot of percussionists.
Well, I feel like whatever it is that I play is a rhythm instrument. Especially in jazz where there is such an emphasis on pulse and how one interacts with it and with the other players.
Well look, any of the great jazz groups had a real strong grasp on rhythm and would inevitably do very interesting things with those rhythms. It’s always been a focus in jazz.
He didn’t live in New Rochelle. He lived in Hollywood. Son of Sam lived in New Rochelle. He was there. There were some real maniacs but mostly perfectly normal people. It was actually kind of a little New York. There was a black community and Italian community. There were poor folks as well as a middle class - which you hardly see anymore.
Yeah, It’s staring you in the face. When I grew up my father was a bookkeeper for the County of Westchester and mother was a teacher. They didn’t make a lot of money. We lived in a modest house. I shared a tiny little bedroom with my brother. We both went to college and took nice vacations. We didn’t live extravagantly but you could live. You could survive. You could do things back then that are prohibitive now. I’m 53.
You know I missed that. I’m so sorry that I did. I started getting involved with jazz just when he checked out. In 1967 when he passed away, I was just starting to pay attention to that. I heard his music right around then and was very taken by it. It really grabbed my attention.
My first introduction to Coltrane was some of the mid-60s stuff on Impulse. It was stuff from ‘63 or ‘64 like “A Love Supreme”, “Crescent” and an album simply called Coltrane.
Yeah. Yes indeed.
I’ll tell you what. At that time I was playing rock and roll on electric guitar and piano. I was very fond of Jimmi Hendrix and some other ‘60s rock bands. I found a parallel between what Coltrane and Hendrix were doing during that period. There was definitely a correlation there. From there I went both back and forward. I figured I needed to really know this guy’s music.
I just try to keep moving forward. I keep writing and considering new possibilities in terms of creating a vehicle for my playing. I’m always listening to different kinds of music. I try to learn something and get another perspective on things. I try to play every day. Either play the piano or play something, sit at the computer and write something. I’m always trying to find a new pathway.
No, not really. I think the saxophone is somewhat forgiving in that regard. It’s not like the trumpet where you have to play this thing everyday.
In some ways, yeah, you make choices. One of my choices very early on was to spend a good deal of time on composing and arranging. Unless you’re going to stop eating and socializing completely, you maybe have to let the practicing thing go a little. You can’t do it all. I’ve chosen to focus on the writing just out of the sheer joy of it.
Yes, several a year. I work really hard.
Well, I want to make sure that I have decent reeds. That’s an ongoing process. I’ll get to sound check early and warm up, play a little bit, get the air moving through the instrument – get my fingers moving a little bit.
I’ll sort of get on a tangent occasionally. The last time I picked up my horn I wound up playing through rhythm changes in all 12 keys as a little brain-teaser. I might happen upon a standard and play on that a little bit or I might improvise on a melodic motif and manipulate it and fool with it. I might play some Bach. You never know.
Yeah, you just try to make some music – spin a tale.
I learned jazz from playing with people. I think that’s what people still do to this day. Yeah, there are books and a lot of information out there to get you started. Ultimately, you have to get together with other players. A major portion of playing any kind of music is in how you integrate your playing into an ensemble.
Well, that’s another issue but I think one really needs to know how to play with people. A good buddy of mine says, “Be sure to play with the people you’re playing with.” The idea is to get together with people. I think the more successful musicians are those who are able to instigate playing situations. That’s done either through sheer tenacity, showing up and sitting in with people, putting a band together, writing tunes and gathering people together to play them – whatever.
No. I still don’t always have that kind of an attitude but I TRY to. It makes a lot more sense to think along those lines. It’s better for you and everyone else.
Everyday. It’s taken a while to get to that point but I’ve always been involved with physical exercise. In the last few years I’ve been really diligent about hitting it everyday. It is really helpful with my travel schedule.
I love to work with the people I’m working with now! Probably not. (laughs) I never got to work with Miles Davis, not directly anyway. Indirectly we worked together. We played on the same movie soundtrack and he sat in one time when I was playing with the Mel Lewis Big Band.
It was insanely cool! It was beautiful. This was during a period in the early 80s when Miles wasn’t playing very much. He was just hanging around the clubs. He’d come to the (Village) Vanguard on Monday nights. He just felt like playing. He grabbed one of the trumpet player’s trumpets and started playing the blues. He played for a l-o-n-g time. It was great!
I went wild!
I was part of a little club that was emulating certain components of Coltrane’s playing. We all took that influence and went somewhere else with that. There was Steve Grossman, Dave Liebman, Mike Brecker, Bob Berg – The Jewish Tenor Mafia.
Joe Lovano took my place in that band. I was there around the late ‘70s. Thad (Jones) was still there in ’78 when I joined the band. Joe Lovano’s dad was an old-time tenor player. Joe has really incorporated the Coleman Hawkins/Ben Webster thing with something extremely modern. The end result is something really fresh and interesting.
There are some visual cues in any music. Some things are left to chance. It’s just the way things fall.
That’s the nature of a band like the Yellowjackets. When you change personnel the sound is going to change based upon what the new member brings to the table. It’s a collaborative effort. It’s democratic band with out leaders and the music is fashioned around four individuals and the way they interact with one another. When I first came on the band I was trying to be respectful and fit in. I tried to feel my way along.
I guess I’m one of the guys who play their instrument and are in view. Akai was sold to an American outfit. At that time they were looking around for someone to provide some exposure for the new instrument. They found me. It’s a great instrument. I’ve always liked EWIs. This new one sort of feels like the first one I had. It has a lot of the properties of the EWI 1000 sound module. It’s a great little instrument.
Sometimes I write for the EWI. Other times it just becomes apparent in the process of working on a tune. It becomes apparent that EWI would sound nice on that particular tune.
I would agree.
Hardly at all. I did at one time. I don’t really have the opportunity to do that these days. I’m mainly focussing on the tenor, soprano, EWI and writing. I haven’t been playing a lot of soprano with the Yellowjackets lately. That’s mainly because it is prohibitive to carry tenor, soprano and EWI on an airplane.
That’s the band microphone that I always play on. I like that Seinheiser 441 alot for live playing. It has a warm sound and doesn’t pick up the other instruments on stage too much.
I’m not really interested in doing that. I like being able to change the distance from the microphone. I don’t like accoutrements and I don’t really want anything hanging off of my saxophone or a wire going from my bell back to my belt. I’m a clumsy person. I would ultimately or inevitably end up tripping or yanking something out.
That’s a 66,000 and this one is a 63,000. It’s one of the first Mark VIs actually. They were made right after the Super Balanced Actions. It’s funny. When I had that horn gold plated all of a sudden people were saying, “You sure sound good.” (Laughs) I think they were impressed by the fact that the horn was shiny!
It’s a bit of a complicated story. The horn belonged to an ex-student of mine named Al Geld who died when he was 30 years old. His wife thought that he might want me to have that horn. It sat in my closet for a little while because it needed an overhaul. Since I had always been curious about playing on a gold horn, I had Oleg gold plate it. It turned into a wonderful instrument.
I don’t know. I’ve done a few recordings for Japanese labels. I’ve been to Japan many times. One of the most memorable trips was with Jaco Pastorius. We played the Buddokan in Tokyo with the Word of Mouth Big Band for about 10,000 people. It was quite an experience.
Not so much lately but at one time yes, I did. The Yellowjackets have gone, but again, not so much lately.
Well, I’ve been over there 11 or 12 times. Once I was on my own and I was over there with Jaco Pastorius and Buddy Rich.
Yes. There are plenty of war stories. What I remember is having the opportunity to play every night, write my first big band arrangements and travel the world.
Yes. I have a couple of saxophone students. In the past I did some ensemble coaching as well.
Believe it or not, Neil Slater who runs the jazz department at North Texas was a mentor of mine in my early musical life. He was very encouraging and a good role model. He’s a great musician, composer, player and teacher. He was in there. He was a high school teacher in the town next to where I grew up. I attended a little jazz workshop he taught after school to junior high kids. After that, I went to Westchester Music and Arts Camp in ‘66 and ‘67 and Neil was there as well. He later taught at the University of Bridgeport and I was going to Hartt College in Hartford. I would come down and play with his big band. We’ve kept in touch over the years. He’s a good friend and a great musician.
Nothing really comes to mind. I just feel lucky that I am able to play music. It’s something that I can see being interested in and engaged in for a long, long time. That’s just a great thing!
Yeah, in Hastings on Hudson, just north of New York City. I think Mike Brecker, John Pattitucci and a slew of other cats live there as well.
It would be nice to mention the new big band record that is just out. It’s on MCG Jazz called Old School New Lesson. It’s the further adventures of the Mintzer Big Band. Kurt Elling is on there as well as the Yellowjackets. It’s the full big band with the Yellowjackets rhythm section.
“Thanks. I’m tryin’ hard.”
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