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Alex Norris: King Band Geek

George Colligan By

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AN: I guess at first it was just gaining confidence from changing the written solos. It was like, "It's okay to change the music." So from there I just being more creative, making my own melodies. Still, the only opportunity I had to improvise was in the high school big band. We had an arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie's "Manteca," and unfortunately, no one could solo over the bridge, because the chord changes were too complicated. But I would just solo over the Bb7 chord for the longest time, just trying to come up with ideas. That was fun—to explore the possibilities.

Later on, a friend of mine who was going to Berklee exposed me to Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. And then I got into Maynard Ferguson, which is common for trumpet players. Maynard was so accessible. I could never get those kind of high notes, so I was more into Miles Davis for that reason. Dizzy Gillespie was also a strong high note player in his early career...

GC: Sometimes your playing now reminds me of Dizzy, because it has the fluidity of a saxophonist. Many trumpet players have a very trumpet-like quality, but players like Dizzy, Booker Little, Kenny Wheeler, Randy Brecker, Woody Shaw, and yourself, remind me of saxophones because of the flowing linear virtuosity.

AN: All those people you mentioned have endless musical ideas! Yes, I try to play long phrases. This is jumping ahead to college, but in retrospect, I think it was good that I went to Peabody Conservatory and didn't experience a structured jazz program; I was mostly on my own with jazz. And that was when I decided I wanted to be more influenced by saxophone players than trumpet players [like] Charlie Parker, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, John Coltrane, and Hank Mobley. They were all big influences.

GC: I think one of the cool things about jazz is that we are all playing the same language in a sense; so for that reason, a jazz trumpet player can be influenced by saxophone players, a jazz pianist can be influenced by vocalists, etc.....Do you think the same idea exists in classical music? In classical music programs? My first instinct is to say no.

AN: Classical instrumentalists tend to be boxed into the world of their instrument. Not all of them. But many of them.

GC: Getting back to Miles and Dizzy Gillespie...

AN: Something about Miles that really appealed to me, I hate to use the cliché of cool, but Miles seemed cool, which can be appealing to a high school person. Miles to me was the antithesis of the football jock, although I found his playing to be extroverted.

GC: How did you get into playing electric bass?

AN: I love playing bass. I wanted to play with the rock bands around school, and they needed a bassist. I don't get to play bass much now, but I love being part of the rhythm section.

GC: When did you realize you had perfect pitch?

AN: In middle school, I could pick out melodies easily, and I just always remember that I could call out the notes, like "that's an A, that's a Bb, etc..." I think that was the point when I realized that I had some aptitude for music, and the encouragement of knowing that I had the talent.

GC: Skipping to college, when you went to Peabody, did you feel overwhelmed by the greater number of excellent musicians in Baltimore?

AN: Somewhat... I knew there were a lot of great musicians around in Baltimore. People like Gary Bartz and Gary Thomas, and also pianists Bob Butta and Tim Murphy were really important. I wasn't as aware of other jazz trumpet players in Baltimore, except for Tommy Williams, who was a big influence. Also, some of my teachers at Peabody were big influences. To be clear, classical teachers and musicians have greatly impacted my jazz playing, for sure.

GC: Talk a little bit about the Peabody Underground.

AN: Well, when you and I were students at Peabody, there was no jazz program, so we started something that was off the beaten path. You and I, saxophonist Richard Dorsey, drummer Jeremy Blynn, and Will McDonald, we were doing something that for Peabody might as well have been avant-garde. Looking back, that was a huge experience, because we were playing jazz on a regular basis, and we really cut our teeth. It made me realize that you can practice the syntax of jazz as much as you want at home, but if you don't apply it in a real situation, you aren't going to develop in the same way. Just playing all the time, chorus after chorus, making mistakes, and trying not to repeat yourself. This only comes from having a band and playing a lot of gigs.

GC: Now, twenty years later, as someone who is a serious jazz educator, do you think that today's students are getting the same kinds of experiences?

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