My wife and I only go out about twice a year. Most recently we went to see you and the Yellowjackets in Philly. I cannot tell you how great the evening was for us! It was just incredible to be able to see the Yellowjackets in a small venue like that. The fact that Bobby McFerren was in the audience and sat in made it even more memorable for us. I am curious to know where the monitors were. I saw you signal back to the soundman.
I was signaling the soundman to turn on the EWI. We did have monitors for the vocals and my Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI).
How does that venue compare to most of the places the Yellowjackets perform?
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.
I can completely circumvent the entire interview process by just directing readers to BobMintzer.com . Virtually every piece of information regarding your long and varied career is posted there. It must have been a forbidding task to assemble all that information for the website. Tell me how that got started.
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.
It’s so comprehensive. There is so much there. I’m sure you must have provided him with some of the information.
I didn’t! (Laughs) He found all this stuff. It’s amazing.
You have been very prolific in the past 30 years or so. Do you feel a need to share your music and teaching? Is it a basic need for you?
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.
I’ve read that you create compositions as a bed for you to improvise and play saxophone over.
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.
From my own college days I am familiar with several of your charts for big band. At the University of the Arts in Philly, I had the opportunity to play many of your charts. One of my favorites was “Flying” from The Incredible Journey CD. That’s a great arrangement and wonderful tenor feature. Let’s talk about the arranging process for some of your own big band compositions. I know you have been nominated for several Grammys. You won a Grammy for____. How long does it take you to construct a piece like “Flying”?
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.
Do you prefer paper and pencil or the computer?
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.
What made you finally take the plunge into using notation software?
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 got started using Sibelius that way. After that, I wrote several big band arrangements for Kurt Elling. He and I did a project in Frankfurt Germany for the radio band there. Next I did a couple orchestral pieces for the Metropolitan orchestra and some sax quartets. The bottom line is that since I’ve gotten that software I’ve written an awful lot of music because it makes it easy and accessible.
I couldn’t agree with you more. You must have been like a kid in the candy shop after getting into the computer for notation.
I still am. I’m real excited about it.
You mentioned the newest etude book. I have the first three etude books you wrote. Your books are an invaluable aid in teaching jazz saxophone. I’m sure you must hear that a lot in your travels. Do you get a lot of feedback when you got to high schools and college?
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.
They are wonderful for the rest of us who are out here trying to maintain good saxophone technique as well as teach it to others. My students really love your stuff.
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’d like to talk about some of the things that stand out in my mind in those etudes. You use simple pentatonic melodies with very hip changes. I’m curious to know what came first the chicken or the egg. Did you write the pentatonic melody first or the hip re-harmonizations?
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.
One of the nice things I like about some of the contemporary jazz and especially your etudes is when you have a bed of changes that the pentatonic scale works over. Both advanced and less experienced players can have fun playing over them. Of course the etudes develop into more melodic and harmonic devices but initially just about any player can tackle these. Is that something you learned along the way? I’m talking about simple melodies on top of more complex chord changes.
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.
Your book Playing the Saxophone – which predates your play-along books – has also been very helpful to many of us. You mention in there something about guys who put too many ornaments in their playing. Diddlydoo or something like that?
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.
It made me laugh when I read it.
You are a composer, arranger, saxophonist, educator and band member. Could you be happy doing just one of those things? If so, which one gives you the most satisfaction or joy?
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.
THAT’S JUST WHO I AM!
I got into the drums a few years ago. You said, “We’re all drummers from previous lives.” Many jazz saxophonists have a special relationship with drummers or drums in general. Trane and Elvin? What do you have to say about that?
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.
You have played with some Latin jazz greats. Where did you cultivate that initial interest?
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.
Do you have certain kinship with the drummer on stage? Obviously you need to listen to the changes and tonality, but do you feel you interact with the drummer more?
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.
You don’t see a certain event or band that attributed to your interest in rhythm? It was more the accumulation of working with so many great drummers and rhythm ensembles?
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.
You grew up in New Rochelle. I won’t ask you if you knew Rob Petry. (Dick VanDyke Show reference). Laughs.
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.
Middle class – which you hardly see anymore? There in New Rochelle or in general?
Yes. I read your latest blog on BobMintzer.com. You obviously have some strong feelings regarding political and sociological matters.
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’ve seen more change than I have. Did you have a chance to see Trane play live in 1960s?
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.
The first Coltrane cut I remember hearing was at my sax lesson in high school. My teacher at the time, Jim Odgren, took me over to his parent’s stereo and played Giant Steps. It was an eye-opening experience for a 17-year- old hearing this for the first time. Were you introduced to John Coltrane’s earlier recordings first as I was?
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.
You really dug that stuff at first?
Yeah. Yes indeed.
It’s possibly a matter of taste or perhaps an acquired taste. The later stuff recorded by Trane is harder for me to listen to and enjoy. I absolutely love his stuff from the late 50s and very early 60s.
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.
You have said you try to keep it fresh. How do you remain positive? How do you keep it fresh?
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.
I read that you don’t practice saxophone as much as you’d like to these days. Is there a warm up you are dedicated to everyday despite your lack of time to practice?
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.
Do you feel that the clarinet or bass clarinet require more daily attention or are “less forgiving?”
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.
You have snorkeled in Hawaii. Do you take vacations when the horn stays home?
Yes, several a year. I work really hard.
I’ll present a scenario. You’ve been on a vacation and it’s time to get back into playing with the Yellowjackets. What do you do to get everything working again?
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.
No real regiment for you though?
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.
Whatever makes it interesting, right?
Yeah, you just try to make some music – spin a tale.
Anyone can pick up a Jamey Aebersold CD and book called Rhythm Changes in 12 Keys. In your early days you said you would jam in lofts in Manhattan. Even when I was coming up we would routinely have jam sessions. The young players today have a greater amount of educational resources for playing jazz. Do you think there is anything lost by learning through books and CDs instead of the old fashioned jam session?
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.
Do you feel there are still ample opportunities for that?
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.
You seem very positive in your outlook. You always take the high road, focusing on the good, not the bad. Have you always had that kind of an attitude?
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.
You are pretty diligent about working out and taking care of yourself.
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.
Is there a person you have not worked with yet that you’d like t?
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 sounds cool. Was it as cool as it sounds?
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!
This would have been just before he put together his funky band featuring Mike Stern, Bob Berg and Marcus Miller. Was he playing straight ahead on the blues?
The house must have gone wild.
I went wild!
I saw that Vanguard band in the mid to late ‘80s. We would make pilgrimages from Atlantic City up to New York on our off nights to see and hear some great jazz in the city. Billy Drews and Joe Lovano were playing tenor on at least one occasion. I remember being impressed by the fact that Billy Drews sounded very much like Trane. I was obviously in New York, a place known for having many talented Cotrane-influenced tenor players.
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.
(Laughs) I’ve heard that reference before! I guess there’s some truth to the story of that alliance formed back then in New York. Now I mentioned Joe Lovano as well. He didn’t really subscribe to the Trane influence and that didn’t appeal to me as much.
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.
You have a lot of sensitivity that comes out in your playing as demonstrated at the recent Yellowjackets performance in Philly. You have mentioned recording things at a lowered volume in the studio as well. The dynamic contrast shared by the members of the Yellowjackets was very obvious to me. Sitting at only the second table from the stage, I didn’t witness any obvious visual or verbal cues when the dynamics would change. How do you communicate that on stage with the Jackets?
There are some visual cues in any music. Some things are left to chance. It’s just the way things fall.
This is the 25th Anniversary of the Yellowjackets. I can tell you that my wife and the other couple we dined with that night in Philly are not musicians. They enjoyed the evening just as much as I did – if not more. It’s really a tribute to the musicianship, quality and artistic achievement of what you guys were doing that night. I’m sure you do that over and over again. You’ve been with them for the last 15 years or so. Prior to that, Marc Russo and his very distinct alto sound were featured within the group. The band had a “sound” with Marc Russo on alto. That sound changed dramatically over time with your addition to the group. How did you find your voice within the group?
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 saw you playing tenor sax and EWI the other night. Tell me about the new EWI.
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.
You obviously use it as another voice. Do you write specifically for EWI or does the instrumentation play out after the writing of tunes?
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.
On the subject of the EWI, Mike Brecker said, “It makes the saxophone fresh.” I find that true for both the player and the listener. You agree?
I would agree.
Are you doubling much on flute and straight clarinet?
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.
I use a tenor case I got from Phil Barone several years ago that is very form-fitting and slides up into the overhead. I had an old EWI 3000 module and controller that used to go into the Yellowjackets accessory box. That box contains cables, microphone, sax stand and all that stuff. I just put the new EWI in a soprano sax soft bag and carry it on.
You were playing on a Seinheiser 441 the evening I saw you. There are several pictures of you standing in front of that mic. Is that your preferred mic?
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.
Do you have a wireless setup?
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.
You have a very pretty horn that seems to be gold plated. I know you like Mark VIs from the mid-50s. There are other pictures of you playing another, funkier looking VI. Do you still have that one?
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!
You had it gold plated?
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.
Do you have a big following in Japan?
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.
Do you go to Japan much?
Not so much lately but at one time yes, I did. The Yellowjackets have gone, but again, not so much lately.
The Japanese jazz audience has really embraced American jazz artists. I thought you might have been a lucky recipient of their admiration.
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.
Those must have been colorful times. You must have a lot of war stories.
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.
Are you a spiritual person?
Does that come out in your music?
Do you still teach at Manhattan?
Yes. I have a couple of saxophone students. In the past I did some ensemble coaching as well.
Over the years, who have been the most influencial teachers you’ve had?
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.
Is there a question that no one has ever asked you that you would like to address?
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!
You live outside NY, right?
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.
That’s a very interesting combination.
You’ve been an inspiration to many of us.
“Thanks. I’m tryin’ hard.”