Q&A with Saxophonist Eric Person
“ I wanted to have a hand in every phase of making and releasing a CD. The pictures, the art, the concept, the studio, the engineer and the musicians. It's more work, but I know I'm moving forward. ”
Although you recorded "live" before ( Live At Greenwich House and Live at Caravan of Dreams both with Ronald Shannon Jackson) this is your first live recording. How was the process different being a leader?
Eric Person: Everything is different when you are the leader. It's a lot of weight on your shoulders. People looking at you for things, instead of others. With the Shannon Jackson "live" recordings, I was a sideman, and a young one at that, I just came and played. Now with my recording Live At Big Sur, I produced the recording in my head first. I thought of what I wanted this band to say on the gig along with the CD. It worked out fine. It was two great performances.
All About Jazz: Many of the compositions on the "live” recording seem to be based on riffs or vamps...please comment.
EP: The concept I take with all my releases regarding the songs, is that I'm for compositional variety. We have a wide range of styles on the CD, but it's the Meta-Four sound that ties it all together.
I like strong melodies. Melody that have an immediacy, and harmonically it can be many things. Like "Magenta" which has a progression and a open section that’s off Gb lydian. "Tiger in The Maze" has what I call a modal progression, with a few II-V cadences in there. "Special Someone", Survival Instincts" and "I'll Be Just fine" have real chord progressions to blow on. Really the only song on the CD that stays in one place harmonically is "Issues", but it's not a vamp. The solos are basically on G7, but it goes to a few different places, based on where the rhythm sections want to take it. Some things are a little deceptive, and the listener may pick up on the underlying complexity with each listen. It seeps in them.
AAJ: On Live At Big Sur you give a lot of solo space to pianist John Esposito...
EP: That’s what my father said, but it just turned out that way. I dig what John is doing and I think it was two of his best performances. I think the CD shows that Esposito is one of the leading piano players in this music. Folks will learn that over time. His use of unique contrapuntal left hand technique is fascinating.
AAJ: Dou you think you will ever use another expanded ensemble like on More Tales To Tell ?
EP: I was just thinking about that the other day. One of the main reasons I make CDs is to document my development as an artist. I want to give the listeners something different to listen to. No matter how great it is, I don't think I'm going to have ten Meta-Four CDs out there. So the next release will be something different. It's not going to be big band though. The flute, acoustic guitar, bass clarinet and bassoon on More Tales To Tell was fun and I am thinking about an expanded band these days. What comes to mind is me playing all my horns, that is soprano, alto, tenor saxophones and flute, add some vocals, percussion, guitar and rhythm section. And add maybe another horn or two.
AAJ: How did you come up with Meta-Four what is the overall concept behind the band?
EP: I came up with the name after much thought. You know, it's not easy finding good band names. I mean, everybody uses quartet; quintet; sextet and group. I wanted something to distinguish us from other bands. At the time I came up with it which was 1998, the band's concept and personnel was solidifying. The band's concept is to feature original music and to pursue and discover new directions. There is a seeking sound to this band. It's exciting and I feel this is my best band. John, Kenny and Peye are scary I get chills playing this music live and the music has grown since the "live" CD, which is the point.
AAJ: When you look back over your career (St. Louis high school prodigy; son of a local saxophonist; stints with Dave Holland, Chico Hamilton, Ronald Shannon Jackson and WSQ) do you think that this resume of working with great artist is hard to come by for a young cat?
EP: It’s all a blessing. GOD is good. When I came to my father at age seven saying I was ready to start playing saxophone, he knew I was serious. I took over his jazz collection! I had the best of everything at Normandy High School, and I played in a Jazz quartet on the weekends. I was reading album liner notes, getting hyped about visiting New York City, and when I did I knew I had to get out of St Louis. My last year at Normandy I was so restless, cause New York City was calling. But the opportunities I have been giving to work with those great musicians is indispensable. There are so many talented musicians, but with few real bands to attach themselves to learn, grow, and get their name out there. I would say it's harder now, but no impossible. You have to really want it and have some luck too. It helps to have a goal and a plan. But another thing that is essential for the contemporary musician is to learn all the facets of the music business. If you are looking for happiness, longevity and fruitfulness in this game, educate yourself, it will serve you well.
AAJ: Pharoah Sanders recently stated that he was giving up "doubling" (ie. going from tenor to soprano sax) in concert, due to the problems of keeping the soprano in tune. What is your secret to "doubling"?
EP: Funny thing is, I've never had problems keeping the soprano in tune. I don't even have problems playing my e-flat sopranino in tune. Of late, I've been adding horns, that being tenor saxophone and flute. Secrets? I don't really have any secrets, but I would say that keeping the horns in great shape is important to being a consistent performer. Also, being on top of the condition of the reeds is a must. Warming up my horns well, and playing them earlier on the day of performance is very important. I would say don't let the gig be the first time that day that your mouth touches your instruments. Some guys don't love all their horns the same either, so that can cause problems. You must practice all your horns! Also, horns get cold fast on the gig. When you're not playing the horns, keep the mouthpiece cap on. You could chip that perfect reed! Between songs quickly blow some hot air and maybe a quick, quiet phrase into the instrument and check for sticking keys. Doublers really have to tune all horns well and listen for acute tuning changes on the gig.
AAJ: You have been involved in some of the pivotal bands of the last decade or so. Please speak on each band and what musically you came away with?
EP: Ronald Shannon Jacksons' Decoding Society was my first touring and recording situation. It was dynamic, funky, and mean. His music is very misunderstood, like Miles Davis' 1970's rock period. At its best, the gig was fun. I learned many things, and since it was my first big gig, I soaked it all up. I learned things about the business of music that I take with me today. Shannon said, "be original, create something, they must come to you to get your recorded masters." Gary Bartz told me the same thing. So that's what I'm doing with my own label.
Chico Hamilton was a real gentleman. A happy person. Fatherly. Underrated. Chico was always encouraging me to gig and record as a leader, and he didn't fear featuring any musicians whole talent. He would record a guys songs too. He was a fair man. He had great energy.
Dave Holland's music was challenging. It was serious music. Odd meters and stuff. Great players on the gig. My musicianship went way up. It's the kind of gig that develops every facet of your playing. And that's rare these days. It was kind of conceptual. It took a lot of liberty in that band. I made it my own, and even took it over at times. Me and Jean Jackson used to make those endings soar. It was great while it lasted.
The World Saxophone Quartet was an important group in the 1970's. By the time I got in the band it was being overlooked, even disrespected. People were saying that since Julius Hemphill was gone, the spirit and the meaning was gone. We made a nice recording, Moving Right Along, and that to me was the high point. The group didn't work much, which was a shame. But playing next to those masters was a treat. They helped me see the value in extending my range as a saxophonist. The gig was very helpful to me.
AAJ: Why did you embark on producing your own label?
EP: First off, I want to say I'm very thankful for the shot that Soul Note Records game me by releasing my first three CD's. But after the third release I was very frustrated. I felt there was no real marketing over there. Mistakes were being made that I couldn't change, and I felt powerless. I didn't like that feeling. I wanted to have a hand in every phase of making and releasing a CD. The pictures, the art, the concept, the studio, the engineer and the musicians. It's more work, but I know I'm moving forward. I make the plan, set goals, and I develop relationships. It's the personal touch and it works for me. I'm building with each record, and this way I have options. I can license the recording to a label, and still own the masters. I'm truly inspired by the whole process. It's not going to be everybody's thing, and that's cool. Betty Carter, Sun Ra, Charles Mingus, Chick Corea, Charles Tolliver, owned their own labels, and I encourage others to do the same.
AAJ: Do you still keep in touch with the current goings on in St. Louis?
EP: When I go back to St. Louis my father always bugs be about sitting in and playing at some clubs. I usually stay in touch with some musicians that way. But if I hear that a musician is really playing, I try and check them out. Meta-Four has played in St. Louis a few times over the last few years. A few DJ's at WSIE and Dennis Owsley at KWMU play my music. For jazz, it's really a slow town, not a strong scene. That's why the cats who can play well have to get out of there. I miss the legends. Saxophonist and composer, Jimmy Sharrod, and drummer, Big Joe Charles, both of whom passed away in the mid 1990's. Nobody could play as fast as Big Joe, and he was over 300 pounds! Jimmy's writing was something else, really special. But St. Louis makes me sad now. I love visiting my family, but the city, like many cities in America, is dying. The building I remember as a kid are now burnt out, tore down, or empty. It depresses me. I hope they get it all together.
AAJ: Give me a glimpse into the bottom line on having your own record company? How does Distinction Records handle its distribution?
EP: The bottom line is control, happiness, and peace of mind. I own and make money off every CD sold, whether in a store, or on the internet. And, my CD's will stay in print! Most importantly, I will always know the status of every release. It's a winning situation. I have two on-line distributors, a larger distributor (North Country) and one in St. Louis. There will be more to come. Someone can go to my website, www.ericperson.com and get them. My CD's are not in every store, but it's available and every store can get them.
AAJ: Did your experiences with alternative pop artist, Ben Harper, help you with any ideas for your own music, business or creativity wise?
EP: I took away a lot of things from working with Ben, but I find it strange that a lot of people in the states don't know who he is. He makes good music and is well known in Europe. But here, it's just college kids who know him. Anyway, I took away some things I learned from him and his management dealing with self-promotion. Ben is a tireless self-promoter. He's doing interviews on his days off, doing them on or after sound checks. He also records every performance. And I record every gig now, because there may be a gem that can make an upcoming release. Being in that state of readiness brought Live at Big Sur into being. Another thing I dug was playing the big halls before thousands of screaming fans. The crowds enthusiasm is so unlike anything in jazz, it's a very fresh vibe. In Paris at Le Zenith, we played before 7,000 fans. Not 7,000 people there to hear some music, but 7,000 fans there to see us! They have the CD's, they know the lyrics, they are going to the website putting messages up on how much they dug the gig. They are trading tapes. It's something that is very special and real for them, because it's touched them in some way. That's what I want for my music. Multitudes digging my music.
See, the vibe around jazz can be depressing. Little clubs, no dressing rooms, that hand-to-mouth vibe, elitist snobs, lack of money and opportunities. It's a different scene. With Ben Harper I learned how important the visual element is. Whether its the look of the CD cover, or the clothes an artist wears on the gig. It sets up an atmosphere to bring people in. And that's the point.
Visit Eric Person on the web at www.ericperson.com .