Odean Pope: Preaching With the Choir
“ Trane gave me his gig with Jimmy Smith when he left to go with Miles. I was shocked that he called me, I said, 'Do you think I can handle this,' and he said, 'I know you can.' ”
After more than forty years of being a highly regarded musician's musician, saxophonist Odean Pope threatens to break out into mass consciousness with the release of his sizzling tour de force session with his Saxophone Choir, appropriately titled Locked and Loaded: Live at The Blue Note (Half Note, 2006). While he also works in trio and quartet settings, his signature Saxophone Choir fulfills his early desire to translate the power and majesty of a gospel choir to his beloved reeds. Featured on the live recording are soloists who grew up inspired by Pope's musical vision, including Michael Brecker, Joe Lovano, and James Carter. And why not? Pope gives grateful acknowledgment to the great musicians who came before him, all links in the unbroken lineages that flow like rivers through jazz.
All About Jazz: How's your busy schedule?
Odean Pope: It's good to be busy, I think. I welcome that. Ever since I did the recording seems like all kinds of things have been taking place, and I'm just grateful. I'm glad to be in this position right now, a lot good things have happened since I did the recording. This upcoming week, Tyrone Brown, George Burton and myself fly out to San Francisco. We're going to do another recording session, Donald Bailey and I are going to be the two leaders. Donald used to play drums with Jimmy Smith. It's going to be a good date, I think. It's going to be a three day live recording session and we're going to pull Freddie Hubbard in to do a few things with us. So, I'm really looking forward to that.
AAJ: Will you be hooking up with Prince Lasha while you're in the Bay Area?
OP: I just talked to Prince today. Yes, of course, we'll probably be together every day. Every time I'm in San Francisco, we definitely be together in Oakland, or wherever, I always hook up with him. I met him in 1979. I'll tell you what happened: Charles Borne, used to work with Philly Joe Jones at the time, he went to San Francisco and we'd recorded about six cuts of my first Saxophone Choir, and he took a tape out there. Prince heard it, and about six month later I went out there with Max Roach and I met him, and we've been pals ever since.
To me, he's a very special person. He would give you the shirt off his back. I mean, every time I go out to California I have to stay with him, he picks me up at the airport, he's just very special. Takes me out to nice restaurants. He's got what he calls a DeLear, it's a two seater and he always picks me up in that. It's like an $80,000-$100,000 car. We just cool out. There's a nice place in Oakland he takes me, right on the water. Seafood restaurant. To show you how much prestige he has and how much people love him there, we go to a Chinese restaurant and when he tells them, this is my personal friend from back east, they fix up a very special meal for us. He's got the magic, where he can just talk to people and the people love him. In addition to being a great musician, he's a very nice person.
AAJ: How did you get Freddie Hubbard on the new session?
OP: Freddie and I go way back. When I met Freddie, Max Roach and his group were going to India. He was on the same flight. We flew from New York to London and from London to India, and we had a long talk and he's very special. There's a place we used to work in LA from '79 to '85, and he used to come through and hang out. Speaking of Prince Lasha, I think the last time I saw Freddie was in Paris.
Prince Lasha and I were in Paris for about a week to hang out and we went to the Selmer factory to pick out some instruments. They gave me five instruments and they gave Prince five. It just happened Freddie was in Paris that week playing the New Morning. We went past the club that night and after the performance, Freddie insisted we go past his penthouse. We had to pull away from him, he didn't want us to leave. He had an early flight that morning. Freddie's another one, he's always treated me like I was his brother. When we got this date, I called him up and asked him if he would consider, and he said he'd be delighted.
AAJ: The Saxophone Choir has been around in one form or another since 1977?
OP: That's about right. I've never stopped. We didn't get a lot of work, but I always rehearse with it and kept it going.
AAJ: And you write all the arrangements?
OP: All except for one or two, they're my original arrangements.
AAJ: What did the band say when you handed them the "Prince Lasha" charts? That's an intense piece.
OP: I've got a lot of real difficult complex pieces. When we did this recording, even before we did the recording, I used to rehearse at least once or twice a week just with the horns, not the rhythm section. Because when you rehearse with the rhythm section, sometimes the horn players be sitting up there not really playing the music. But when you take the rhythm section and the piano away, and the drums away, you got all of the sheets off everybody. Everybody's right out front, you can hear what's going on. I've been doing that for many years.
When I got the deal to do the recording with Half Note/Blue Note, I rehearsed for about ten weeks. The first six weeks was nothing but the horn players. I got the best horn players available, some of them had been with the Choir for a long time, and I got some of my students who had been with the Choir about six years. A couple of my students I started teaching in 1997 and they made such tremendous progress, so Elliot Levin, Terrence Brown, Terry Lawson, also Seth Meicht, four students. We rehearsed for six weeks straight before I brought the rhythm section in, and I must say they really got those parts together.
AAJ: You said at one point you wanted the Choir to sound like one instrument.
OP: And they did it, they captured it, they got it. In fact, that was one of the few times they really captured the idea and the concept that I have been preaching to them for many years. And I think, in essence, they were so up from getting the recording date, they knew Michael Brecker, James Carter, and Joe Lovano were going to be on the date.
We were working round the clock. I would bring them over my house in the basement, sometimes we'd go to the studio and rehearse. We had a real, real good relationship during that ten weeks rehearsal. Sometimes I would get maybe two people and rehearse, sometimes I'd get the whole ensemble. Maybe we'd get George Burton the pianist and bring him over, maybe get Tyrone Brown the bassist. It was a combination of a lot of different ways that I got this together, because I was really trying to pinpoint all the little details and everything worked out. I think they worked it out really great.
AAJ: How'd you get Joe Lovano, James Carter, and Michael Brecker to record with the Saxophone Choir?
OP: I'll start with Michael, because he's from Philadelphia. Michael was going to the Berklee College of Music. I had a group called Catalyst. We did four albums during that period. Michael had all four of those albums under his arm going back and forth to school. He knew about my history. He came back to Philly eight or nine years ago and we had lunch with Byard Lancaster. I told him I'd like to have him at some point to be a guest soloist with the Saxophone Choir. He's so humble. I guess I could talk all night and not really say the words that do him, because he's one special nice person, in addition to being able to play that horn like he does. He said he knew the Saxophone Choir and would do it when he could schedule it.
In the early eighties I was working with Max, and did the first Saxophone Choir record in 1985 and was doing an interview at the Columbia Broadcasting Station in NY. When I came out of the studio, this guy was sitting out on the bench. He said, "You don't know me, but I'm Joe Lovano, and I really, really like your music, and I'm doing an interview behind you." Maybe eight or nine years later, Joe Lovano is a very big superstar. So, I asked him and he said yes.
James Carter said he'd known about the Saxophone Choir since 1985. He heard the first album. We were in Warsaw together; in fact I met James about ten years ago. He came to Philadelphia, I met him then. He played so many instruments that night. He was almost like a one man show. I guess there had to be three thousand people there and he really tore it up. I saw him at the Warsaw Jazz Festival, he had his quartet, I had my trio. Also, Sam Rivers' Quartet, nice, nice festival. The next morning we had breakfast, I asked him also.
All three of them, I just couldn't believe they were so willing to be a part of the Saxophone Choir. I've never played with three musicians who played their butts off on the date, and were so humble. Sometimes you get musicians that come on the gig and they're hard to get along with, they have attitudes. None of them had any kinds of attitude, and that's why the music came out like that.
OP: The first time I met Max was through a pianist named Hassan Ib Ali. Max recorded Hassan back around '65. I had been following Max for many years. I knew Sonny Rollins when he was playing with Max. In fact, when Sonny would come into town I would go past Sonny's hotel room and he would give me just so much valuable information, a very special person also. Then, when Hassan recorded with Max, Max got Hassan a recording date. It was never released. It was for Atlantic, with Art Davis on bass, Hassan on keyboards, I was on tenor. Max met me at that time, and then later he came to town and played a club called the Peps. One of the famous jazz clubs in Philadelphia, not there anymore.
The two famous jazz clubs in Philly at that time were the Peps and the Showboat, and Max and Clifford Brown, and Kenny Dorham, and Sonny Rollins, they used to come to town all the time. So, this particular Saturday Hassan called me up and said, "You know, Max is in town and I think you're ready, you should come on down. Max invited me down and I think you should come down, I want you to play with me." So, I went down with Hassan. The place was packed. Hassan convinced me to get on the bandstand with Max.
Immediately, when we got on the bandstand, Max kicked off the fastest most complex piece you could ever think of. The tempo was just so fast, man. I really, really struggled through it. Afterwards, Max came to me and said, "You know, you've got something. You're young and you've got a lot of energy. I like what you're doing, so why don't you give me your number and maybe in about a year or so when you continue to practice and study, I'd like to give you a shot to play with the group." I was so excited, I went back home and practiced, practiced, practiced, practiced, practiced, practiced, practiced.
What happened, Jimmy Merritt was playing with Max in 1967. At that time, Stanley Cowell was in the group, Charles Tolliver, Max and Jimmy Merritt. I think Billy Harper had just left the group. Max asked Jimmy about me, asked him how I was doing. I had playing with Jimmy's group. Jimmy had a group called the Forerunners and I was also playing with that group. So, he invited me up to New York to his place and he auditioned me.
There were a whole lot of people he was auditioning. I was like really scared to death. Finally, he picked me to go with the group. He said, "Look, we're getting ready to go to Europe and we have twelve compositions we have to memorize within two weeks. With the quartet I don't want any music on the bandstand." So, I used to take the train every day early in the morning to go up to his place, and I rehearsed with the group for two weeks, and I memorized the music. I worked with him for about a year at that time. During that time, there wasn't a lot of work. That's when there was a major transition with hip hop and whatcha call it, that other kind of music really took over. So, there wasn't a lot of work, and Max started doing other things, so I said I was going to go back home and study for another few more years and really start writing. That's when I started writing for the Saxophone Choir.
AAJ: It's hard to picture a world where there wouldn't be much work for Max Roach.
OP: That's the period when Max started teaching at Amherst. I've been really blessed for the last couple years, I'm just doing so many different things. I'm supposed to play the National Anthem for the Philadelphia 76'ers tomorrow night. You know, Grover Washington used to do that, and then when Grover passed, they called me and I've been doing it quite a bit. I just did one a couple of months ago.
Teaching, I did a residency in Savannah, Atlanta, and I've got three residencies in Philadelphia right now. The University of the Arts in Philadelphia got a grant to do a special thing called Philadelphia Arts and Education. It's working with the school system and they give you ten days to work with young kids in the school. I just completed on last week working with the first graders, and I've got thirty more days to do between now and June. The good thing about it, I can work it into my schedule. I just have to do two forty-five minute sets a day.
AAJ: What do you do with first graders?
OP: Listen, man, they are so alert. Let me just tell you what I did. I got two cowbells and some wooden flutes and I start off by letting them participate, play the instruments. Once you get their confidence that feel as though they're part of it, then I gave them the history of the saxophone, explained that John Coltrane grew up right here in North Philadelphia and he's one of the greatest saxophone players that ever lived, just telling them some of the history. You should have seen some of the stuff they gave me, what they had prepared for me when I left. And the kind of discipline they had, I couldn't believe it.
They put their name down and said, "Mr. Pope, I learned about John Coltrane was one of the great saxophone players. You taught us harmony, melody, and rhythm are the most important things about music. You taught us about dynamics." I put all these things on the board, and they jotted them down someplace. Some of their spelling was not right, but the thought was there. Jazz Times from NYC came down for one of my sets last Monday, and he was there and talked to the kids also. He's doing an interview on me, so he came down last Monday. He sat in on the class and was very impressed.
AAJ: You've taught all the way up to college level. Do you prefer any one over the other?
OP: They all have their own rewards. They asked me what level I wanted to teach and I said it could be any level, because I get rewards, ideas, and concepts from all of them, and I think all of them should be a part of it. My next one after six nights at the Blue Note will be third and fourth graders. Last year a classical harpist and I, if you can envision this, classical harp and tenor, we worked together. She's a professor at the University of Westchester, and her name is Gloria Gallante, and she really is doing a good job playing jazz music. We're playing at the Mann Music Center and the whole Philadelphia Orchestra will be there plus conductor.
AAJ: And you did a thing recently with them, an Ellington tribute, where you were the soloist, right?
OP: Yes, I was a guest soloist. If you can imagine standing up among 114 musicians, that was an experience I'll keep with me the rest of my life. It was a thirty-five minute suite. Also, I had to read that really difficult music.
AAJ: How'd you meet Coltrane?
OP: Coltrane was living in North Philly. He was living on 33rd Street and I was living on 17th St. There used to be a little club around the corner, him and Clifford Brown used play a club called Bell and Lou's. I couldn't get into the club, I used to just stand around outside and listen to them. It was hot and they had the door open, when they took a break sometimes they'd come out.
Him and Clifford were both really nice. I explained to them that I was trying to play and they gave me all kinds of encouragement to keep doing it. Hassan came past my house one day and heard me play, so he knocked on the door and asked my name and said, why don't you practice with me at my house, and Trane was also going past. So we used to go past and just play with him. Benny Golson lived two blocks from me.
AAJ: Why is Philly such a jazz town?
OP: From my experience of Lee Morgan, Jimmy Garrison, John Coltrane, Jimmy Heath, Benny Golson...John Coltrane and I used to play duets together. We also used to play with Hassan. I have Benny Golson's hand manuscript of "I Remember Clifford." All of the guys a little ahead of me, they would pass all the information back to me. Jimmy Heath used to get all of Charlie Parker's new compositions.
When Clifford Brown's "Joy Spring" came out, it was very big. One of my professors, I asked him, can you get me "Joy Spring?" He sat right down in my basement and wrote it out with no piano or nothing. He had perfect pitch and he could hear round the clock. Trane gave me his gig with Jimmy Smith when he left to go with Miles. I was like seventeen. He gave me my first gig to work. They had a two week stand, and in the middle of the gig he got the call to go with Miles Davis. I was shocked that he called me, of all people. I said, "Do you think I can handle this," and he said, "I know you can."
So after I did that with Jimmy Smith I started to get a lot of good response from other musicians calling and giving me gigs. Why do so many good musicians come out of Philadelphia? Because, I think they have a love for one another, I think they come together and study together. Reggie Workman, Jimmy Merritt, Jimmy Garrison, just a whole host of musicians, we used to come together, go down to each other's basement, if I get a new tune I share it with you, if someone else got a new tune, they share it with me. It was just like a big family. That was a very special period.
Odean Pope Saxophone Choir, Locked and Loaded: Live at The Blue Note (Half Note, 2006)
Odean Pope, Two Dreams (CIMP, 2004)
Odean Pope/Khan Jamal, Nothing is Wrong (CIMP, 2004)
Odean Pope, Changes & Changes (CIMP, 1999)
Odean Pope, Collective Voices (CIMP, 1996)
Odean Pope Saxophone Choir, Epitome (Soul Note, 1993)
Odean Pope Saxophone Choir, The Ponderer (Soul Note, 1990)
Max Roach, To the Max! (Blue Moon, 1990)
Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Music World (Gramavision, 1986)
Max Roach, Bright Moments (Soul Note, 1986)
Odean Pope Saxophone Choir, The Saxophone Shop (Soul Note, 1985)
Max Roach, Scott Free (Soul Note, 1984)