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Charles Pillow: Sound Crafter

By Published: December 14, 2010
AAJ: Did playing oboe help your chops with saxophone or make it more difficult?

CP: For me, it's all the same. What's important is that you're practicing.

AAJ: The embouchures are different for sax and oboe, right?

CP: The embouchures are different for every instrument, but the fingering and moving around the instrument is what's important. Lately, I've been playing a lot of flute, and it all comes down to the same thing: you're working on something, the overall thing is you're working towards making music, and the most important thing is that your head and your brain are working. And you're thinking of this note, this sound, this vibe, this idea, and so on.

But embouchure-wise, you do have to do a bunch of maintenance of your chops, and playing different reed instruments might make that task more difficult, but you do what you can.

AAJ: You're not one of the guys obsessed with the instruments themselves and all the nuances of the bore, the different mouthpieces, etc.

CP: It's very possible to be compulsive about it, trying every mouthpiece, but I'm not into that. My high school band director always told us, don't be a "tryer." Just stick with one thing. That is really great advice.

AAJ: Your resume is incredible and covers so much. Tell us about some of the highlights of your career thus far.

CP: Growing up in the 1970s and '80s, I've been fortunate enough to have played and recorded with many of my idols, like Dave Liebman. I discovered him in high school. Heard him on the radio, and thought "This is incredible!" Forgotten Fantasies (A&M, 1975), the duo album with Richie Beirach
Richie Beirach
Richie Beirach
. I played with Michael Brecker on his next to last album. He was just unbelievable. David Sanborn
David Sanborn
David Sanborn
was one of my idols, and I worked with him quite a bit. It's been my dream to play with some of these people, and it's been my good fortune to do so.

AAJ: You also have played with some pop stars.

CP: Yeah, those were great projects. The recording with Jay Z a couple of years ago was very interesting. His producer made a really imaginative use of the horn section. I've also worked recorded Mariah Carey and found that experience very interesting.

AAJ: Let's talk about your own groups.

CP: Well, I have the "Pictures at an Exhibition" band. We do my composition based on Mussorgsky's work, and I use pretty much the same personnel at each performance. My new "Van Gogh Project" also requires a different set of players, though.

AAJ: Are the same players on Pictures as on your version of Holst's "The Planets?"

CP: Well, some are the same: Jim Ridl
Jim Ridl
Jim Ridl

on keyboards and Chuck Bergeron on bass, but it's different drummers. The two pieces were also recorded in different ways. The Planets was recorded more like a pop record, that is we tracked the drums and bass in one studio, and then did all the rest of the tracks/instruments somewhere else, adding all these layers. The guitarist did all his tracks at his apartment. I overdubbed my stuff, too. By contrast, Pictures was done live in a studio. We used two or three takes for each movement and that was it.

AAJ: Do you prefer either of those approaches?

CP: I like both ways, depending on the music. However the situation presents itself, you can make creative music either way. You can get the most out of the music whether you're playing live ensemble or not.

AAJ: How do you choose players for music that requires specialized talents or abilities? Do you have a list of people you know? Do you give a lot of forethought to finding someone?

CP: You have some people that you already know are able to do certain things. For example, I knew the drummer for The Planets, Graham Hawthorne I knew he had a studio we could work with. I have a small circle of friends and colleagues I can reach out to and grab their talents. I work that way. There are so many fine musicians in New York anyhow, it's pretty astounding!

AAJ: You live in New Jersey and work mostly in New York, and yet you seem to know a lot of musicians around Philadelphia and Pennsylvania like Jim Ridl, who worked around Philly for several years, and Dave Liebman, who lives in the Poconos. Recently, I reviewed the Dave Liebman Big Band at Chris' in Philly, and you and I touched bases during the intermission. How did you get involved with that group, and what's it like working with it?

CP: I got involved with Liebman through his musical director, Gunnar Mossblad. He has a saxophone quartet group that did a project of Liebman's music called "The Seasons," based on a Liebman recording by that name, not the Vivaldi piece, but Lieb's original music. So we did some gigs in New York, and around that same time, Dave decided to form the big band. And it made sense that I should be in the sax section. That was around 1999 or so. That's also when I met Jim Ridl. He played in Liebmans' big band and I thought, "the next record I do, he's gonna be on it!"

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