Take Five With Mike Lee
Mike Lee is a tenor saxophonist originally from Cleveland, OH and now living in Northern New Jersey. He's currently leader of the Cecil's Monday Night Big Band at Cecil's Jazz Club in West Orange New Jersey and co-leader of the acclaimed jazz quartet, New Tricks. He has released five albums as leader or co- leader, recorded as a sideman on albums by such jazz luminaries as Joe Lovano and Eliot Zigmund. Active as a jazz educator, Lee gives clinics on jazz improvisation at schools and universities around the country, and serves as Coordinator of Music Programming for Jazz House Kids, a nonprofit education organization based in Montclair, NJ. Performance credits include gigs with the Village Vanguard Orchestra, Maria Schneider, T.S. Monk, Christian McBride, Billy Hart, Woody Herman Orchestra, Dave Douglas, Eddie Allen, Michele Rosewoman, Loston Harris, and many others. Currently Lee tours extensively with New Tricks, while maintaining a busy schedule of gigs in the New York City area.
Tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone.
Teachers and/or influences? Studied with Joe Lovano, Rick Van Matre, Howie Smith.
Many many influences, Ben Webster, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Charles Lloyd, Stanley Turrentine, Wayne Shorter, Sidney Bechet, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, etc. etc.
I knew I wanted to be a musician when... I heard Johnny Griffin play a concert at Cleveland State University, when I was in High School
Your sound and approach to music: I believe in a big sound with a lot of warmth. The key is plenty of air! When I perform I attempt to stay present and responsive to the playing of the other musicians while referencing our shared listening experience.
Your teaching approach: Jazz is a language. Too many students are confused by the term "improvising" which is a term that is often misunderstood. I stress the acquisition of jazz language as the primary function of the budding improviser. I feel that music theory is most useful as a way to explain what musicians do, but must constantly reference and adjust to information garnered directly from the recordings of the masters we emulate through listening and transcribing.
Your dream band:
I always dreamed of being in a band like New Tricks: four good friends with similar values who love playing and touring together with strong ideas, but a willingness to try new approaches.
Road story: Your best or worst experience: Playing at the Blue Wisp in Cincinnati in the mid-'90s, I opened the third set with a spirited version of "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise." As I finished my solo, I stepped to the side of the band stand fairly pleased with my chorus. The club's dog decided to take his chorus and jumped onto the band stand replacing me in front of the horn mike.
Unfortunately the pooch didn't play saxophone or trumpet and presented the only offering available to him; he did this in plain sight of the entire audience. The bassist didn't smell it and continued playing with his eyes closed. A brave waiter ran up and cleaned up the "offering," and we had a tough time convincing the bassist that all this happened. I thanked the waiter profusely, but refrained from shaking his hand. After the tune, not knowing what to say, I leaned into the mike and said, "everybody is a critic."
So many, it's too hard to pick one. Village Vanguard is pretty great as is Smalls. Cecil's Jazz Club in West Orange, New Jersey has meant so much to me over the past four years. But the clubs in Italy? Oh my! The way the wine and food flows, hard to argue with that...
Your favorite recording in your discography and why? The latest New Tricks release, Alternate Side, was recorded after five weeks of touring and playing the original music nightly. By the time we recorded, the music was so easy to play that we could put all our energy into the performance, while staying engaged in the moment. I had always wanted to record this way, and the results were everything I imagined they could be.
The first Jazz album I bought was: Dexter Gordon, Tower of Power.
What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically? New Tricks has captured a special group dynamic that I feel is infectious and really growing through our recordings and our intense touring schedule. The Cecil's Big Band (which I lead) is a community within itself that's allowing cats in the band to flourish in other situationunfortunately, "flourishing" means half my band subs out on Monday nights to play at the Village Vanguard! And clearly the most important thing I contribute is instruction to my students, who I'm so proud of, including my sons, who are fluent in the jazz language and already have caught the ear of some important jazz artists.
Did you know...
I love travelling, hotel rooms, planes and especially long drives to gigs. Sometimes I'll take a gig just because I get to make a long drive. And when I'm not traveling I love to be with my beautiful family. Driving to soccer practice and ballet lessons, and helping with homework are activities I cherish.
CDs you are listening to now: Tracks from Brandon McCune's as-yet-unreleased recording;
Duke Pearson, Honeybuns;
Bruce Williams, More To Go.
Desert Island picks: Wayne Shorter, Speak No Evil (Blue Note);
Art Blakey, Free For All (Blue Note);
Charlie Parker, Complete Savoy and Dial Sessions;
Stan Getz with Oscar Peterson Trio;
John Coltrane, A Love Supreme.
How would you describe the state of jazz today? Absolutely flourishing. People who gage the health of jazz by the income generated by record sales and number of radio stations are missing the point. They need to visit hundreds of schools and see the thousands of young musicians striving to become better jazz musicians. They need to see Smalls (and several other NYC clubs) at 3 am on a Wednesday morning, where musicians from across the globe stay up all night to jam. Don't confuse the health of the jazz industry with the health of the music.
What are some of the essential requirements to keep jazz alive and growing? Jazz grows as long as people are creating it and dedicating themselves to their creative growth. Help students to have good instruction, good instruments and teach them the discipline to practice. Then go see in person, or online if you can't get there, all the brilliant musicians constantly creating throughout the globe.
What is in the near future? New Tricks latest release, Alternate Side, is set to drop April 5th. We will be touring the Midwest from April 1st through April 18th and have numerous NYC gigs over the next few months.
Teaching private students, Coordinator of Music Programming for Jazz House Kids and practicing!
If I weren't a jazz musician, I would be a: A professional golfer; it's all about the swing!
Dennis Connors, Courtesy of Mike Lee