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Interviews

Odean Pope: A Singular Voice in the Choir

By Published: March 11, 2009
AAJ: Bassist Tyrone Brown
Tyrone Brown
Tyrone Brown
b.1940
bass
, who played with you and Max and with your Saxophone Choir, stands out, especially his interaction with the strings, on some of those tunes like "Elixir." What can you tell me about that?

OP: Tyrone is definitely one of the great innovators of that instrument. In the early '80s we were getting ready to go to Europe and Max was formulating the double quartet. He asked me to coordinate and write and arrange some pieces so in addition to "Elixir," I did "Cis" and a couple of others. Those were some of the pieces that we would play every night. What I coordinated between the bass and the strings was like a high-energy prolific piece that opened up so many different doors and went into so many places. Every night when we would play that, we would get a tremendous response from the audience. I explained to them when you play you think in terms of inner reaction, collectively as well as individually, and they captured it right away.

AAJ: Your new bassist is another Philly guy who has been around for awhile?

OP: My new bassist is a killer and he is one of the best-kept secrets. He is Lee Smith who is Christian McBride
Christian McBride
Christian McBride
b.1972
bass
's father and he has been playing with me for about a year and a half. I am doing a recording with him and with (drummer) Sunny Murray
Sunny Murray
Sunny Murray
b.1937
drums
[Plant Life (Porter Records, 2008)].

AAJ: How did you come up with the concept of the saxophone choir? When I think of a lot of saxophones I think of the Mummers parade and I want to go in a different direction, but the choir is very spiritual and beautiful.

OP: Well, you know I was raised in the South, in South Carolina and every Sunday it was mandatory that you had to go to church and they had the big huge choirs. I used to do a lot singing and they had a junior choir that I was in. So, shortly after we came to Philadelphia, there was a theater called the Earl Theater and 10 days out of every month they would bring a major band in: Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
, Buddy Rich
Buddy Rich
Buddy Rich
1917 - 1987
drums
, Maynard Ferguson
Maynard Ferguson
Maynard Ferguson
1928 - 2006
trumpet
, Count Basie
Count Basie
Count Basie
1904 - 1984
piano
.



So, I tried to figure out what instrument could I use to capture the experience that I had in the big Baptist church. I started with the keyboard, and then I went to the bass and to the clarinet, then from the clarinet I messed with the flute and then back to the keyboard. Then one day when I went to the Earl Theater they had Arnett Cobb

Arnett Cobb
Arnett Cobb
1918 - 1989
sax, tenor
, Illinois Jacquet
Illinois Jacquet
Illinois Jacquet
1922 - 2004
sax, tenor
, Johnny Griffin
Johnny Griffin
Johnny Griffin
1928 - 2008
sax, tenor
and a whole host of saxophonists who were actually marching around in the theater playing. So I then said I want to play this instrument and when I played the tenor saxophone I said this is my voice. So I first tried writing for like a quartet and then an octet and I said well let me stretch out a bit and utilize nine saxophones and that's where it came from.

AAJ: I noticed on the Saxophone Choir's CD, Locked & Loaded Live at the Blue Note there is a song dedicated to Prince Lasha
Prince Lasha
Prince Lasha
1929 - 2008
sax, alto
and that he also recorded with your trio on The Mystery of Prince Lasha (CIMP, 2006). What is your connection with him? (Prince Lasha passed away shortly after this interview)

OP: Prince is like history in a sense. Many, many years ago he had a big house in NYC. All of the great musicians: (saxophonists) John Coltrane, Sonny Simmons
Sonny Simmons
Sonny Simmons
b.1933
sax, alto
, Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
b.1930
saxophone
and Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
b.1930
sax, alto
, in fact he and Ornette went to school together, they all used to hang out in Prince's house. Prince is a great instrumentalist. He plays the alto, the baritone, the flute, the bass clarinet, the e-flat clarinet, and practically all of the woodwinds very well. He was in NYC for a long period of time and he had all of the people working with him like [pianist] Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
b.1940
piano
, [drummer] Elvin Jones
Elvin Jones
Elvin Jones
1927 - 2004
drums
, all of the great ones worked with Prince Lasha.



He moved to the West Coast in maybe the late-'60s, where he bought a big, big house on a hill. He always had a big house and all of the musicians when they went to the West Coast he would encourage them to stay at his place. There they could practice and have the flexibility to eat good. He was into real estate by trade and he made a lot of money doing that. So you would go out there and he would take you out to dinner and you would get the best seafood or whatever you wanted. In the late-'70s, I think it was 1977, when I did the first tape of my saxophone choir, he heard it and fell in love with the tape and contacted me. So, about three years later when we went out to San Francisco with the Max Roach Quartet to play the Keystone Corner, a very famous jazz club there, of course I had to stay at Prince's house. He picked me up at the airport and I was treated like a king. He was such a being that I thought it was very appropriate to write a composition about him. He is an excellent musician and he was instrumental in introducing me to Ornette Coleman who wrote the liner notes on Locked and Loaded.



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