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Peter Epstein: Effortless Precision

Stephen A. Smith By

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For me, the really successful free music is in essence just collective composition. It's more of a compositional element to say, 'I'm going to solo now. I'm going to step out.' And just by making that decision, you're affecting everything else, because there are repercussions for everyone else in the group.
This article was first published at All About Jazz in June 2001.

Peter Epstein is one of the brightest saxophonists on the New York scene. Since coming to New York from Portland in 1992, he has recorded with Brad Shepik, Ralph Alessi, and a host of others, on more than 30 albums. He has released three discs as a leader with MA Recordings: a solo saxophone album, and two discs of his quartet with Jamie Saft, Chris Dahlgren and Jim Black. A fourth will be released this fall, featuring Epstein with Scott Colley and Peter Erskine.

Earlier this year, I went to New York to hear Epstein play with Ralph Alessi's Modular Theatre. After the show, we went to a nearby coffee shop to talk.

All About Jazz: Let me ask you about your instruments, because you play a few. Is soprano your primary horn?

Peter Epstein: I would say alto is, in that I started on that a few years before the soprano. However, what's interesting is that in most bands where I play alto, I also play soprano; and there have been a number of musical situations where I've only played soprano. So sometimes it does feel like it's my primary instrument. But I couldn't really make a choice, and hope that doesn't ever arise! [Laughs.]

AAJ: What criteria do you use to decide which horn to use in a given situation?

PE: That's a good question. It's hard to define how I feel about the qualities of the two instruments. In general, soprano lends itself to more lyrical stuff; but on the other hand, it can be pretty fiery, too. I think the alto in general has a little more velocity, a little more presence, a little harder. A lot of times it'll depend on the range, too—where the tune is written, and where it feels like it's going to end up in the 'sweet spot' on the horn.

AAJ: Have you worked specifically on your tone?

PE: Oh, yeah. Not 'specifically' in the sense that I've really done particular exercises. But in a way I kind of have my own process to develop technique. It's slow, and kind of intuitive. Maybe the best way to say it is that I've just kind of fallen in love with the sound of the instrument. As time has gone on, I've developed more of a connection to it. I'm hearing it better now, so I hear more what I want out of a sound, or find those things in a sound that are really gorgeous. Doing a solo project also, I think, helped facilitate that a little bit. Because it's so exposed, and there's so much that you can do on the softer side of the instrument which just gets lost when you're playing with ensembles or a group. Exploring that stuff some more, I found a more expanding palette of sound.

AAJ: When I play clarinet, one thing that's always challenging my tone is the hiss of the air passing through the horn. Is there anything in particular that you notice lurking around the corner of your tone?

PE: That air thing kills me, too. There are some times when it might be a nice quality, but I need to have control over whether it's there or not. I get really frustrated—I kind of lose it, actually—if I don't have a really good reed. I'm really, really picky about reeds. It's almost like if it's not perfect, then I'm at thirty percent. If I don't have the sound I need then the sense of time is gone, my fingers feel stiff, and everything goes out the window. It's almost like I've never held the instrument in my hands. It feels like this foreign object. It's only because the sound is wrong.

AAJ: Todd Garfinkle's another guy who seems preoccupied with the sound. How did you two hook up?

PE: I met up with Todd through Miroslav Tadic, who is a professor at Cal Arts. He teaches guitar there; but he's from Yugoslavia, and when I first arrived at Cal Arts, I studied Balkan folk music with him. By the end of the year we were starting to play together. I ended up playing in a band of his for the second, third and fourth years I was there. Right at the spring break of my last year at Cal Arts, he and I went to Japan to make a recording for MA. It was my first time on a real commercially-released CD. It's just continued since then. After I went over with Miroslav...I don't remember what the next project was, but eventually Todd turned to me and said, "Do you have a project that you want to do?" I think I've done 15 for MA now. All my stuff is on there.

AAJ: How much of your conception of tone has developed since you began working with Todd?

PE: I would say quite a bit of it, actually. There's something about that recording process that's really unique. I'm quite used to it now; but whenever I do a project for him with other musicians and it's their first time recording with him, I always try and really prepare them a little bit, because it's so different than being in the studio.

AAJ: How so?

PE: From the musician's standpoint, you just kind of wonder what the hell's going on sometimes. He'll run back and forth from the recording console to where the mics are and he'll just move a mic a sixteenth of an inch and then run back there and listen to it. But it really is a process and he really is doing something, honing in on the sound. It's just so exposed, and you just hear everything. One of the things I realized when I made the recording with Miroslav was that I couldn't really play soft, not in a really controlled way. And because it was an acoustic, nylon-stringed guitar, and saxophone, there was a real issue there. With Todd there's never any amplification. That was a bit of a starting point of many years of going back and working. I really want to have control of the sound, and to feel comfortable with it and connected to it, from an almost immeasurable whisper to as much as I can get out of the horn. Now I feel like I'm getting closer to that where playing softly is not so much of an effort.

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