Alisha Pattillo: Houston by Way of Singapore

C. Michael Bailey By

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Reed multi-instrumentalist Alisha Pattillo has a ubiquitous presence in Houston Texas, appearing with her own groups, which take on a variety of formats: Alisha's Quartet, Alisha's Quartet + 1 and Alisha's Quartet - 1. She is also the reed player for the Ezra Charles Band and Steve Krase & The in Crowd.

Pattillo has recently released her self-produced debut, Along for the Ride (2012), celebrating the spirits of saxophonists Eddie Harris and fellow Houstonian Wilton Felder. Her tenor saxophone tone is sinewy and muscular, emanating confidence and an organic, funky intelligence.

All About Jazz: "A half-Australian/half-English/ raised-in-Singapore saxophonist, now residing in Houston Texas." That is a Quentin Tarantino film begging to be made. Houston, Texas is about as far from Southeast Asia as it can be, how did you make your way to the land of the "Texas Tenor?"

Alisha Pattillo:It was a really long swim... just kidding.

I was very fortunate to have an international upbringing, due to both my parents working expat jobs throughout my childhood. My parents actually met in Singapore in the early '80s and moved away, had a couple of kids and returned there about 10 years later with the family. My mother and I attended the same high school in Singapore. So the small island nation has a history with our family.

I started playing in a couple of blues bars in Singapore, The Crazy Elephant and The Voodoo Shack, when I was about 16. I was actually in boarding school in Singapore at the time, as my folks were already living in Houston. I would visit Houston during summer holidays and my mum would take me to local blues clubs here like The Big Easy and Shakespeare Pub, so I could sit in with some bands and jam. That gave me a small taste for what the Houston blues scene had to offer at a relatively young age.

Once I received my Bachelor of Music in Brisbane, Australia, I knew I needed to move on, as Brisbane doesn't have a large live music scene. There are some world-class players there, but not a lot of opportunity to perform in comparison to the States. My parents suggested I moved to Houston, so I took them up on that offer and have been hanging around, working in this big ol' oil town ever since.

AAJ: Speaking of Texas Tenors, you now join that august group including Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb, Buddy Tate, David "Fathead" Newman, King Curtis and, most notably, Wilton Felder. Your recent CD, Along for The Ride, reflects Felder's influence as well as the great Eddie Harris. What about this brand of tenor saxophone playing do you like most and what do you believe you bring to it?

Alisha's Quartet—Along for the RideAP: Most of these guys have large blues influence in their playing, and I spend a decent amount of time performing with blues groups, which is probably why I relate to them. They all have a huge tone, and are very soulful players. Before moving to Houston, the only saxophonist of the above listed I knew about was King Curtis. It's not like I moved to Texas to try to become a "Texas Tenor," although that makes a cooler story. I've slowly been introduced to these players, and they seem to have made a mark on me.

Out of all the guys mentioned above, Illinois Jacquet, Eddie Harris and Arnett Cobb are my favorites and whom I would consider "influential." "My Lady," written by Felder, was on the album Street Life (MCA, 1979), by the Crusaders, which was one of the only "jazz" albums my father listened to in the car when I was a kid. So I heard that track for many years and thought it would be cool to record it; it's a nice groove tune, and is a small toe dip into the smooth jazz sound. The first track on my CD is an Eddie Harris cover, which was introduced to me by local pianist extraordinaire, Paul English, "Freedom Jazz Dance." My band has a lot of fun to playing it live, and it has great energy so I wanted to try to capture that. Also on the album is a funky version "Black Nile," a composition by the great Wayne Shorter, and two tunes by Joshua Redman, who is one of my favorite modern players.

AAJ: Your website sports an outtake of "In A Sentimental Mood," from Along for the Ride, that is quite exceptional, featuring you playing a traditional jazz ballad. Could you envision recording a collection of ballads with your present quartet, and which titles from the Great American Songbook speak to you the most?

AP: I'm glad you like it. There's never room to include everything you want on one CD. I ended up leaving off two tunes that were originally intended for the album; the other tune is "Blues for Ben," by [drummer] Stanton Moore. I included "In A Sentimental Mood" as an outtake for a YouTube video; however, the "Blues for Ben" recording didn't make it that far. We do have a couple of decent live versions of it floating around cyber space.

I love ballads. You have a lot of open space and time to really create something special. Maybe later I will do a ballads album—it's a good idea. I never liked John Coltrane's playing until I was introduced to his album Ballads (Impulse!, 1962)—which, after listening to it over and over again, made me appreciate how amazing he was and opened up my ears to his music. Dexter Gordon is also another favorite ballad player of mine. His tone is the best.

AAJ: Your quartet features the superb Houston guitarist Paul Chester as the harmony instrument in place of the traditional piano. Do you have a preference for the guitar or piano as the harmonic anchor and if so, why?

AP: Ironically I first hired Paul Douglas Chester for a gig my keyboard player couldn't make, and he's just stuck around ever since, and I'm glad he has.

I honestly don't have a preference, but I like the mobility of a guitar. Few venues have pianos, and those that do tend to be poor quality or neglected. As we do a lot of fusion, the guitar has been working out great. I like having the option when it comes to tone by using effects or different instruments. Paul Chester always brings his hollow body but is often escorted by either a Stratocaster, Telecaster, or, on rare occasion, a banjo.

Chester is a fine musician. He finds many appealing ways to approach a tune as an accompanist and as a soloist. I personally love his comping style; his ears are always listening and following my solos rhythmically and harmonically. It's a real treat to have him as a member of the band. The same can be said about my drummer, Richard Cholakian —he's very creative, and lights a fire under me whenever we play. I feel really honored and humbled to have a great rhythm section to perform with; they have really upped my game.

AAJ: You are the member of what is becoming a school of jazz all to itself in Houston. How have you found the musical environment—creatively fertile and supportive?

AAJ: Houston has been a great place for me to develop. I have been fortunate to have stayed busy gigging steadily here for the past couple of years, although a lot of it hasn't been jazz. The jazz gigs with the formation of my group Alisha's Quartet and CD release has picked up, and we manage to keep working. It has been such a huge learning experience being a bandleader, having to deal with the business side of the music industry: promotion, bar owners, management, sales, musicians. Up until this project I had only been a sideman, it was very easy to take gigs for granted. You just show up play your horn, get your money and go home. When you become a bandleader there is a lot more going on behind the scene than most realize.

The members of Alisha's Quartet are some of the top players in Houston, and being able to share the stage with these guys has been helpful in my own growth. Our next move is to record a live studio video of four songs in mid-May [2013], two tunes from the CD and two new tunes. Projects like this give me a goal to work towards and keep me in the woodshed. I think the most important thing is to keep growing, and working on my craft. If one becomes stagnant, the passion dies and fun becomes work.

Selected Discography

Along for the Ride (Self Produced, 2012)

Photo Credit

Dave Sartin

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