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A Fireside Chat With Lew Tabackin

AAJ Staff By

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It was a cynical approach when you try to think of 'art' music as something that is a candy bar or breakfast cereal. It doesn't make any sense. This is why jazz was better off with smaller labels. Large companies don?t know what to do with it.
I don't want to sound off another cliche but Lew Tabackin is criminally unheralded (but who isn't in this music?). Tabackin is criminally under-recorded (but who isn't in this music?). Tabackin is criminally not performing live as he should be (but who isn't in this music?). Which leaves only one conclusion: we are all some thieving mother-f-ers in this music and should all be put behind bars. There are days when I am banging my head up against the proverbial jazz wall or jazz ceiling as it were because artists like Tabackin aren't being shown the money. But I am only one voice in a land full of voices and the chance I am being heard is about as remote as Steve Martin getting an Academy Award, between slim to none.

Tabackin is most widely known for his collaborations with wife, Toshiko Akiyoshi, but Tabackin is a terrific player and proof is in the pudding (e.g. Desert Lady with Hank Jones and Dave Holland, or his rhapsodic rendition of 'I Wished on the Moon' on What a Little Moonlight Can Do, or Ella worthy 'But Not for Me' off his In a Sentimental Mood release). Our, the collective our, inability to recognize and more importantly appreciate artist like Tabackin is the tragedy of the times we live in, which is often why I bow my head in shame, most days. But enough about me. Folks, may I present Lew Tabackin, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

LEW TABACKIN: I started out on the flute and when I was fifteen, I decided I wanted to play the tenor. Once I started playing the saxophone, I really started to get interested in music. Before that, it wasn't that important to me. From that point, I started to really try to make up for lost time because I felt that I started late. I picked up the tenor and within an hour, I had a sound and a concept that was quite respectable. It didn't take me very long. I started going to jam sessions and playing and one thing lead to another and I just went with it and never turned back. It's like the old Lester Young quotation. Lester Young was the drummer in his family band and he decided he wanted to switch to another instrument and they took him to a shop and he picked up the tenor and he said, 'When I put the horn in my mouth, I knew the bitch was for me.' It is kind of a similar thing. I had an empathy for the saxophone, for the tenor saxophone. It was fairly natural.

FJ: Influences?

LT: At the time, it was the very beginning, but Philadelphia, for some reason, there was a lot of interest in Al Cohn and I had some of his records and that was probably my first influence. There was a guy who lived next door to me in Philadelphia who had a record collection and I started to listen to some of his stuff, but Al Cohn was my first guy.

FJ: The historical significance of Philly jazz, due in part to John Coltrane, has had considerable weight.

LT: Oh, yeah, one of the few things that was good about Philadelphia was there was a very strong jazz music scene. After I started playing the saxophone for a few months, I started to go and try and sit in in a lot of jam sessions and they were fairly tolerant of novices. The better players, the more experienced players would be encouraging. There were the jazz coffee shops where we could play and experiment and then move on to second tier jazz clubs. It was OK. I was still going to school when all this was happening. It was a good place to get started. There were a lot of great, local musicians to listen to.

FJ: Who mentored your development?

LT: Oh, boy, Fred, I haven't thought about that. I think it was more of a collective thing. It was more of peers discussing the latest discoveries and then you can kind of relay your own experiences. It was more like a peer group situation. When I was twenty, I decided I wanted to know more about the history of my instrument and at that time, I was kind of a Coltrane clone and I figured it was counterproductive to emulate someone. It was a dead end, so there was a trombone player who had a large record collection and he let me listen to many great players and it opened my ears up. It opened my whole concept and so I began to find my identity through understanding the tradition.

FJ: Tradition can also become a burden.

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