SaxShed.com Artist “MiniView” Featuring Joel Frahm
by Skip Spratt
Saxophonist Joel Frahm is no newcomer to the New York jazz scene. He has been active in the Northeast and beyond for over two decades where he has formed associations and performed with jazz greats Kenny Barron, Rufus Reid, Victor Lewis, Larry Goldings, Betty Carter, Dewey Redman, Lee Konitz, Pat Martino, and the famed The Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Even following his early stint with jazz superstar Maynard Ferguson and later work with singer Jane Monheit, Frahm remains a relative unknown – more saxophonists simply need to become aware of his wonderful playing.
I personally became aware of Joel Frahm’s approach to the tenor and soprano saxophone less than 10 years ago. The husky native of Wisconsin has a sound and style is both modern and traditional, borrowing from elders and then creating something fresh and new. Mr. Frahm has been building a following since first performing with the prestigious Hall High School Jazz Ensemble and later reaching the semi-finals of the famed Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition. He has also enjoyed critical acclaim for his duet recordings and performances with fellow Hall Alumnus Brad Mehldau.
In recent years Joel Frahm has been continuing to build a following among jazz enthusiasts where he continues to perform, tour and record. Most recently he enjoyed an engagement with vocalist Diane Schuur at the famed Blue Note in New York City.
This SaxShed.com “MiniView” should serve as a brief glimpse into the current world of saxophonist Joel Frahm. I am pleased to showcase Mr. Frahm as the first subject in what will be an ongoing series here on SaxShed.com.
I’d like to find out more about your background and beginnings in music. How and when did you start in music?
I begged my parents for a piano after hearing the Vince Guaraldi Charlie Brown Christmas record at a party they had with their friends back when I was five years old. My folks tell me I started picking out melodies from the recording on their hosts’ piano, and soon after that my folks started me with piano lessons and bought an upright for me to play. I played classical piano semi-seriously for about six or seven years. After that, I started playing different instruments in my grade school bands until my best friend at school, Giovanni Washington-Wright, suggested I switch to saxophone so I could play in the jazz band. Gio played alto already and is still a professional woodwind player and composer and arranger in Texas.
Did you come from a musical family? What did your parents do for a living? Tell us about that.
The rest of my immediate family isn’t really musical, although my dad can carry a tune and has a nice voice. He’s even starting to do voiceovers! He was a journalist with a focus in education writing for many years at the Racine Journal Times, and then at the Hartford Courant after my family moved to Connecticut in 1985. My mom eventually became a nurse practitioner for a Gastroenterology practice, but was an R.N. for many years prior and now works for a pharmaceutical company. My dad’s father played a bit of guitar and fiddle in his day, but other than that there’s not much evidence of other musicians in the family. My folks always played cool stuff in the house when I was growing up, though. We listened to a lot of Beatles and Bill Withers and Doobie Brothers in our house.
You’re a native of Wisconsin and then you moved to Connecticut. What prompted the move to Connecticut and at what age?
My dad got the job at the Hartford Courant, I think in 1984 and moved east before the rest of the family to start work. My mother, sister and I came early in 1985, at the beginning of my second semester of freshman year of high school. That was a true turning point for me. I hated my school in Wisconsin, and was getting bullied a bit and also failing most of my classes. Moving to Connecticut and going to Hall High was a godsend.
You have done a lot for Hall High School in Hartford Connecticut, your Alma Mater. Tell us about your days as a student there and working with Bill Stanley.
Really, it’s Hall High and Bill Stanley that did a lot for me. Bill was really tough sometimes, but I learned about discipline and respect and expecting excellence from him. He was tireless. I ended up touring Europe with the band three times while at Hall, with a high school band that could hold its own with most professional big bands. I can’t say enough about how important that experience was. I know I would never have become the musician I am without going through that. Plus, there was a perfect storm of talent there at that time, especially my early mentor Pat Zimmerli who was already at age 17 an incredibly accomplished tenor saxophonist and Brad Mehldau, who has become one of the world’s great pianists.
In HS you shared some rich opportunities with jazz pianist Brad Mehldau. You have also shared a common musical interest in recent years. How and at what point did the two of you start gigging together?
Brad and I haven’t played in quite a while, but there were a couple years in the late 90s and early 2000s where we did a few duo concerts together. Those engagements led to Don’t Explain, the duo CD we recorded in the winter of 2001, which was released in 2004. I regret that we haven’t played in such a long time. I’m proud of that CD; I think it holds up well. When we first met at Hall High, in addition to playing in the school band we were doing regular Wednesday night gigs with the drummer Larry DiNatale at Hartford’s now-defunct 880 club. Those were my first professional gigs and I learned a lot. We did that around 1987 to 1988 and would take the little money we earned and drive out to Integrity & Music in Wethersfield, CT and spend it on jazz LPs. We listened to a lot of stuff back then. Coltrane, Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Brecker Brothers, Miles Davis from all eras, Charlie Parker, Wayne Shorter, Billie Holiday, just all sorts of things. Brad introduced me to Zappa and Jimi Hendrix too.
Tell me what’s on your plate in the near future. Tours? Recording? Live dates?
I don’t have a new CD planned at the moment, but I’m trying to get a date in the book with a label, so that may well change in a few months. I continue to do masterclasses at universities and tour with many different bands. This year I’ll be working a lot with Omer Avital, Ben Allison, Ernesto Cervini and Soren Moller, to name a few. I just did a week with Dianne Schuur at the Blue Note that was really fun, and I know she wants to do some more dates as well.
Joel, tell me where you are teaching and how do today’s students/university programs compare with your experiences as a student?
I teach as an adjunct instructor at The New School in NYC, and a couple times a semester as an artist-in-residence at UArts in Philadelphia. It seems to me there’s a new generation of really serious young musicians coming up through the schools. I’m not one of those people who think that music schools are killing jazz by turning out musical clones. I think that’s a lot of BS. I see lots of young talent, and some of them develop it and some of them tend to waste it, but the ones who are really developing it are at a very high level of musicianship at a very young age. As a young musician, as with any other discipline, your education is what you make of it.
You are clearly an accomplished saxophonist with a passion for playing jazz. Do you limit your work to artistic endeavors or do you also play Club Dates/Private Parties? If not currently, did you ever play these types of commercial gigs? Recording Sessions or Jingles?
I only did a couple jingles in my life; that scene was certainly smaller by the time I got to New York. I don’t play club dates or parties anymore unless it’s a special favor for someone, but I certainly did a lot of that for many years. I did a lot of blues gigs in New Jersey, too. I was always a guy who preferred making my rent with the horn in my mouth as opposed to temping or something.
You’ve had many successes as a modern jazz saxophonist living in New York City. Many of us realize it’s not always a smooth path to success. What’s the worst gig you’ve had to do, either in music or as a “day gig”?
The worst day gig I ever had lasted all of two days. That was selling knock-off children’s videos door-to-door on the streets of New York in the summer of 1990. It was horrible, and I got attacked by a crazy guy on the street who lashed me in the back of my bare legs (I was wearing shorts) with a bullwhip. I am not making this up. I went right back to their main office, dropped off the videos and quit. I also worked at Starbucks for a while, but that actually wasn’t bad at all. Musically, there is one gig that stands out as the worst, but it would take another article’s worth of space to tell that story, so if anyone is interested, they can ask me after a gig sometime!
What is your routine like now as far as warming-up and practicing? Is there a routine? To what extent do you work on tunes, patterns, compositions, books, etc?
I’m sorry to admit I don’t have much of a routine. I did practice quite a bit at a certain point, but now that I’m working much more, I don’t do as much dedicated practicing. When I do, or when I did, I was transcribing solos and learning them. I learned the most by transcribing Johnny Griffin, Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, etc. I wouldn’t just stop there, though. I truly inhabited those solos and practiced them to death with a focus on good time, articulation, tone and nuance. Good swing feel has always been very important to me, as well as my sound itself. I never got into working out of books, and the patterns I play are ones I copped by listening or figured out on my own. I’m not saying my way is right, that’s just my personality and how I went about things. What I did the most was to make sure I was playing with other people as much as possible– tons of jam sessions and sitting in when I was younger. That’s where I learned the most: on the bandstand in real time.
Tell us about the instruments and set ups you currently use. Our readers would be very interested not only in the horns, mouthpieces, reeds and ligs but also the way in which you acquired them.
My main tenor has a nice story behind it; It’s a 60,000 series Mark VI that originally belonged to one of my first great sax teachers who has since passed away, a very sweet man and fine saxophonist from Connecticut named George Ventrelli. He sold it to me in 1987. I seem to always gravitate back to that horn. I have two other really nice Mark VI tenors that I play fairly often: a 64,xxx I bought from Randy Jones at Tenor Madness in Iowa, and a 66,xxx. My current mouthpiece is a hard rubber Otto Link Slant Signature #9 that I believe was worked on at some point by Brian Powell, although I’m not completely certain about that. I play and endorse Roberto’s Woodwind reeds and wooden ligatures and currently play 3 soft as the strength. My soprano is a silver Borgani, and I vacillate among different soprano mouthpieces– usually I’m using a Selmer Super Session “G” with a 3 1/2 soft Roberto’s reed and ligature.
Do you have hobbies outside music?
I like going to the movies a lot. I’m a big sci-fi nut. I like to read, too. Right now I’m reading Even Cowgirls Get The Blues. I like good mysteries, too.
What do you say to someone who’s trying to develop his or her own individual sound and be an artist above all else? – Particularly in the current economical climate.
I would just tell them to be themselves no matter what. If being one’s self means you end up being a sideman for lots of different bands, like I have, or if it means you go out on your own as a leader, all of that is good if it’s what you want. The young musicians who have a real need to play and write and grow will do it regardless of what I say or teachers tell them. I like what Charlie Haden said in an interview I read years ago, and I’m going to paraphrase: “If you want to be a great musician, work on being a great person first.” I think about that a lot these days. Music is an important part of my life, to be sure, but family and health and peace of mind are equally, if not more important. Getting back to the music part of it, I’d like to see jazz stay a social, community experience as much as possible. Having those musical experiences together with peers and elders is what makes us grow. Also, let the roots of the music, blues and swing, nourish what you do. Why not embrace the elements that make jazz fun and special in the first place?
Where would you like to be in 10 years?
I’d like to be physically fit, peaceful in my mind and heart, in a solid relationship if not a marriage, and stable enough to live comfortably, if modestly. I’d like to continue to grow as an improviser and composer and seek out good opportunities to play with people that inspire me. I don’t know if I’ll ever really be a true bandleader, but as long as I have opportunities to play with other great musicians, I’ll be happy.
Is there anything else that we have not touched upon that you would like to share?
I think we all need less Facebook and more get-togethers. Human contact needs to make a comeback.
You can find out more about Joel Frahm on his official website .