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Alexa Tarantino: Passion For Playing And Teaching

R.J. DeLuke By

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I'm still in awe of is the fact that we're creating moments that will never happen again. Every gig. —Alexa Tarantino
Alexa Tarantino was bitten by the jazz bug at a young age. She was fortunate to grow up in a community where jazz is an important part of the musical fabric—rare these days. She swiftly grabbed hold of the music and has developed into an in-demand alto saxophonist, earning a series of high-profile gigs that slowed down a bit only recently because she is pushing forward with her own band and musical vision.

Her career includes playing sax on stage before age of 20 with Earth, Wind & Fire, jumping from college to the DIVA Jazz Orchestra, touring with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Arturo O'Farrill's Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, collaborating with decorated vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant—among others—and teaching music as an artist-in-residence in a variety of settings—as far away as Poland for a brief time.

That's a pretty full resume for someone bitten "at an early age." That age is relative. The space between discovering the music and becoming a professional discovering her potential is not vacuous. The woman who has compiled these accomplishments already is only 28.

"I knew from a young age I wanted to do this professionally," she says, looking back on her beginnings in a small town near Hartford, CT.

What drew her to jazz was that it was "such a raw form of self expression through an instrument. Also the freedom you find in jazz, with improvisation and creativity and composition. Communicating with others on the bandstand. That type of freedom was really exciting to me. Now, to this day, what I'm still in awe of is the fact that we're creating moments that will never happen again, Every gig. Even every lesson. Every master class. Every performance. With improvisation, it's never going to be repeated the same way."

Things have slowed a bit because of the coronavirus situation. But Tarantino, a driven woman who doesn't sit still for long if she doesn't have to, still pushes forward, finding ways to adapt. She remains exuberant. She has a new CD out, Clarity (Posi-Tone), that is continuing to cement her reputation as a fine player. Her killer band on the disk is comprised of Steven Feifke on piano, Joe Martin on bass and Rudy Royston on drums. And throughout the shutdown caused by the COVID-19 virus pandemic, Tarantino works online, first in a series of duets with Feifke, and now with "A Step Ahead Jazz," a music education program for all ages and ability levels (June 29-July 3). It takes the place of the Rockport Jazz Workshop she founded and ran for a number of years, south of Boston, that had to be canceled because of the virus.

Putting it all together takes a great deal of persistence and effort. But Tarantino is indefatigable. Outwardly, it's just part of her daily life, working on her mission to bring music and music education to the people.

Tarantino's path started with her taking up the piano and saxophone at the same time, around the age of 10, with the full support of family. "In the community, jazz was a big deal," she says. "The music program was incredible. I had many, many opportunities." When listening to music as a child, jazz was always in the forefront. She also enjoyed music of Motown, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye—her mom's favorites. Her father played classic jazz for her like Ella Fitzgerald and John Coltrane.

"When I was in elementary school, my family and I went to see one of the local high school jazz concerts. I was probably 9. I saw a young woman playing a ballad, a featured saxophone ballad with the big band. That's when I said, 'I wanna do that.'" Soon, she was in the elementary school jazz band and continued those studies up through Hall High School, whose alumni includes Brad Mehldau and Phil Woods. As a rising musician, she also liked listening to Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley ("especially with Nancy Wilson. I love that record. I love learning the melodies and playing melodies," she says). Later, on trips to New York City she was turned onto Kenny Garrett and at the Village Vanguard on Monday nights to Dick Oatts with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.

She left Eastman with a degree in jazz performance and music education; also a music business certificate. Later, after becoming a freelance musician in New York City, she earned a master's degree from Julliard, which she finished in 2019.

At Eastman, she made her first record, an independent production called Crossing Paths with one of Eastman's piano faculty members, Dariusz Terefenko. With Terefenko she toured and taught as an artist-in-residence at various universities. They even went to Poland and taught at the Academy of Music in Krakow for a couple of weeks during Tarantino's final year of college.

"My studies kept me busy, but there were a few groups, either led by faculty members or students, that would have regular weekly gigs," she says. "There were a lot of teaching opportunities. It was a great place to break into freelancing."

It was in college she picked up valuable lessons about leading bands. "That's where I started doing stuff just with my quartet. I did a little bit of quintet as well. On my last record, Winds of Change (Posi-Tone, 2019), there were a couple of quintet tunes with Nick Finzer on trombone. I usually had a quintet with alto saxophone and trombone. So, it was a great place to be."

After the school year ended, she would stay in town for the Rochester International Jazz Festival held in the summertime. Staying for the festival after her graduation proved fortuitous. "Earth, Wind and Fire was the headlining band. Through an amazing sequence of events I ended up playing with them during their concert. That was kind of my graduation," she recalls with a chuckle. "Philip Bailey, who was so generous, had me do a featured song. We did a duet of 'I Remember You' with the rhythm section. Then he had me join the horn section for most of the rest of the show. That was my wrap-up time in Rochester."

After Eastman, Tarantino was "getting sort of recruited by Sherrie Maricle & the DIVA Jazz Orchestra," an all-female band that has been led by Maricle for about 25 years now. She had known the band leader somewhat over the years, and Maricle was now in the market for a lead alto saxophonist.

Recalls Tarantino, "So I went to the Deerhead Inn in Delaware Water Gap (PA), which is where Phil Woods was living at the time. I remember driving several hours from Rochester to Pennsylvania. I had been working on the music forever. They sent it to me a couple weeks ahead of time. I was eating, sleeping and breathing it because I wanted to get the gig. It was my first non-Rochester band to have the opportunity to play with. We had a great time and they asked me to join the band. The band was touring pretty significantly at that time."

A smaller group split that off from the band was also working with tap dancer Maurice Hines' one-man show, which toured, and then settled in off-Broadway in Manhattan. "That was when I made the decision to move permanently to New York. That was before Julliard." In the Big Apple, she started teaching at Jazz at Lincoln Center and doing some work for them. "In that time with DIVA, the year before I started Julliard, I was hanging out in New York and going to clubs," Tarantino says. "Mostly I was hanging out at Dizzy's Club, at Jazz at Lincoln Center. That's when I started doing some work with Wynton Marsalis and the jazz orchestra. I did some touring with them. DIVA was still traveling a little bit for things like the Hollywood Bowl or the Kennedy Center

Tarantino was undeterred. "Between DIVA and some things with Wynton and Jazz at Lincoln Center and teaching, I had a pretty full plate. I was trying to get my name out as much as I could. When I went to Julliard, I wasn't able to go out all the time. I was trying to take all the gigs I could get and get to class also," she says.

She also pursed her own projects as time allowed. And there were other great opportunities.

"For two years I was in Arturo O'Farrill's Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. They did a fair amount of touring. I also started working with Darcy James Argue with his Secret Society. Then I started collaborating with Cecile McLorin Salvant who has the project Ogresse with Darcy James Argue. I've also been collaborating with her new quintet as a flautist," says Tarantino.

"That was all happening during Julliard. The Wynton stuff, the Arturo stuff, Darcy, Cecile, Arturo and my own stuff. It was a mad, crazy schedule in terms of trying to make sure I was focused in school and making all my classes. I really wanted to prioritize that. But at the same time, if these amazing opportunities came up, I couldn't say no. I was very fortunate that my teachers and my professors were really helpful. I learned a lot and they also understood what I was up to."

O'Farrill's band became quality opportunity for Tarantino in a setting involving the exotic rhythms and music from the Latin genre. "I loved playing with that band. I spent two years with them and I just recently moved on because I'm trying to do more touring with my own group as a quartet. We had so much fun. We did some great tours. Great traveling. The music is incredible. I love playing that classic style like Tito Puente, Machito, Chico O'Farrill. We had a nice mix with Arturo's original compositions. It was a very exciting project to be a part of because there was always something new that Arturo was doing. Always a new collaboration."

She adds, "I really gravitated toward the old-school classics. In the beginning of my time with the band, I sat next to Bobby Porcelli, who is an alto legend. He did a lot of work with all those bands back in the day, then went on to work with T.S. Monk. As soon as I met him and heard his sound, he became another influence for me and mentor for me."

It was only about a year ago that those gigs ran their course for the most part, as Tarantino pressed on with her own work. The relationships, however, are invaluable and cherished.

She says Marsalis is among her most valued mentors. "I actually met him in high school. Hall High School went to compete at Jazz at Lincoln Center in an Essentially Ellington program, a competition they hold every year. I made a point to reconnect at Jazz at Lincoln Center when I officially landed in New York. That's when I started teaching for them, in their youth education program [Jazz for Young People] ... We are still in touch." She did some online work for Jazz at Lincoln Center's programs during the quarantine, hosting a weekly show for awhile. Last year, she went with the trumpeter to France to play with his septet at Jazz in Marciac. "He's been really great to me."

She also worked with baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian, whom she met through DIVA. "She helped me immensely when I first got here," says Tarantino. "There are many people" who have been helpful. "Dick Oatts has also been incredible and brought me in to sit next to him in the Vanguard Orchestra."

Working with a singer, and a great one in Salvant, has also been enlightening for Tarantino. She says the award winning vocalists works in a unique way—not at all as a star who just needs musicians behind her for support.

"I don't even think of her as a vocalist. A lot of people have a stereotype of what working with a vocalist is. Working with DIVA, we would occasionally do cabaret-style things, or things where you're the backing band for a vocalist ... I also did something with Kurt Elling, with the Ulysses Owens, Jr. big band backing him and Dee Dee Bridgewater. Those situations are more where the singer is in the forefront, and the band is in the back and maybe has their moments.

"But with Cecile, it's different. It doesn't feel like there's any real forefront or back burner. It's all one living, breathing organism. With her Ogresse show, with her and Darcy, it's the most incredible fairytale narrative. It's like a drama, with a story line and really intense, beautiful music. You're always focused. I play six instruments in that project, so I'm always focused," she says, gleefully. "I never feel like I'm on the back burner. Everyone is in it 100 percent. She's very creative and always very focused on instrumentalists. I just love the atmosphere she created. It's been a real joy to work with her."

Tarantino plays flute with Salvant, and has expanded to use that instrument more in other projects. She plays with a full, luscious tone and creates beautiful, soulful sounds. It's a sweet change of pace that enhances her overall presentation and musicianship. Some of that can be heard on her new recording.

"I love playing flute and I love doubling. I love woodwind doubling. At one point last year, on Winds of Change, we decided to do one tune on alto flute. It was an 'ah-hah' moment that I wanted to do more playing as a flutist in a jazz setting. On most of my gigs now as a leader, I'll play alto and soprano (sax) and flute, or alto saxophone and flute and alto flute. So I keep it in the mix. I think it brings a really nice texture and nice change to the ensemble. A new mood. It's beautiful to play with," she says.

The new recording, her second as the clear leader, separates Tarantino the composer and performer from someone who plays other music in other people's bands—as great as those experiences have been.

"When I finished Julliard, I made a little bit of a mental shift. I said, 'OK, what is my music going to sound like? What can I do with my band? What creative projects can I start to brainstorm and collaborate?' Definitely not trying to turn away from any of those sideperson collaborations, because I love them all. But just putting more of the focus on my compositions and what I can contribute as a band leader.

"I think that's where Clarity comes from," she says. "I had gathered all these experiences from all these different people. As I continue working with them, and hopefully with others, I'm trying to put everything together and clarify my own music ideas and opinions and express my own thing."

She says the recording came together easily in the studio. "The band was awesome. A lot of this music I actually wrote leading up to the session. Some of the tunes I chose because they are some of my die-hard favorites. 'My Ship' and 'Gregory's Here' are two non-original compositions that I just love. I love the melodies and I love the vibe."

"Through," she says, is a modal song she wrote to showcase the flute in an edgier, more abstract setting. "Thank You For Your Silence" is her composition to remind herself she doesn't have to please everyone all the time. There are also tunes that were commissioned for the album as well. Each are carried out with intensity and passion. The band is tight and fiery.

"This record it was sort of: I want to show people my writing and I want to present music that is me. I also wanted to pick a couple of things that just make me smile. With the contrast between my originals and those standards, we put it all together."

Tarantino was looking forward to releasing the CD at events this year, including the Rochester jazz festival. It's not possible now with the virus situation. Summer dates with Salvant and with Ulysses Owens Jr. were canceled, as well as some teaching gigs.

Under quarantine, she has been presenting Sunday night concerts, live-streamed through Crowdcast, with Feifke. Part of the proceeds are donated to organizations with emergency artist relief funds.

"That's what we've been doing to keep things moving. Before each concert we do a pre-concert conversation that's open to everybody and we answer questions and talk about the theme of the music for that night and our approach to the music. Every week is different. We did a Coltrane night, we did a Gerry Mulligan night. We did a night of our originals. It's been fun."

The Step Ahead jazz camp will keep her busy and involved in education, which is important to the young musician. "That, with performing—It's my mission to do both as much as possible."

"I try to combine education into my tour dates as much as I can (through "visiting artist" types of things). Also, I'm into the entrepreneur aspect of the business and how to drive your own success, create your own work, instead of relying on others. It's important to have many different avenues going."

Tarantino has a vision about her future, which portends to be long and fruitful.

"I would love to keep touring and performing with the amazing people I'm fortunate to work with. I love traveling and meeting people from all over. I'd love to do that more with my own group. Also continue the education. Down the line, I'd love to take a little bit of an ambassador role for the music, whether that be expanding my summer jazz program or getting more involved at an arts organization as some kind of artistic director or something like that. I'd like to be involved as much as I can throughout the community and in jazz education."

Photo courtesy of Alexa Tarantino

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