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Bob Reynolds: Communication Is Key


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I am a jazz musician. It's just that—what does that term mean?
—Bob Reynolds
Bob Reynolds, a saxophonist and composer of note with nine recordings under his own name and a work load that has him playing with artists like Larry Carlton, Snarky Puppy, Josh Groban, John Mayer and others, pauses when considering the genre of jazz and how he fits in.

Reynolds doesn't have to apply his talents to the changes of jazz standards or neo-bop workouts written by his peers to be fulfilled. He can do it. It can be fun for him. But his rich tone, silky chops and great feel for melody and rhythm don't have to be applied to the jazz cannon. He's at home with funk and groove music. He adds a bold spirit to Mayer's band in a smooth sonic contrast to the flailing guitar. On an August night at the esteemed Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, NY, with the Larry Carlton quintet, he tossed out gritty and soulful sounds, somewhat reminiscent of one of his influences, Grover Washington, Jr., on tunes associated with the guitarist, including the guitarist's originals and songs from the Crusaders and Steely Dan. He expertly added an extra sophisticated layer to the sound.

"I am a jazz musician. It's just that—what does that term mean?" he says over lunch before the Carlton gig. "It has everything to do with that person leveraging the term and their associations to that. Is the person saying that and the only jazz they've heard is Kenny G? Or the only jazz they've ever heard stopped at Benny Goodman? Or they only are into Vijay Iyer? Which jazz are you talking about? I don't mind the term because it is somewhat of a helpful categorization ... So I am a jazz musician, but it's a case by case thing."

"Just because something ascribes to that word, doesn't mean it's something I'm going to like," he says after pauses. He selects the words carefully, because he is not biting the hand feeds jazz musicians. He understands and respects it. Yet, "There's so much I don't like. Jazz happens to be the music that has the strongest concentration of playing music with a lot spontaneity in it, and needing a high skill level. But the problem from my viewpoint is that it's become so ... So much of it has become cerebral, self-indulgent. Where's the connection?

"It doesn't mean I'm saying, 'Don't try to be as great as you can on your instrument.' It should first and foremost be about communication. With the people you're playing with and, hopefully, the people you're playing for. That's the music that gets me excited. Music that has that connection. If something is astounding from a cerebral standpoint, I don't care."

His newest CD, Quartet, is an example. The eight compositions played by a group that has been together for about two years, developing a chemistry and a language that can only be developed when groups stay together—Ruslan Sirota on keyboards, Janek Gwizdala on bass and Chaun Horton on drums. The music is jazz and the improvisations are outstanding. The songs are at times mellow, funky and ethereal, but they can be felt and absorbed.

Previous Reynolds albums have featured superb jazzmen like Reuben Rogers, Aaron Goldberg, Mike Moreno, Eric Harland and Obed Calvaire among others.

"That's my roots, jazz. But the way that I come at music as a composer, bandleader, doesn't tend to be walking bass line swing. It's swing, inside of other feels. It's swing, but it's not like 'Autumn Leaves.' I enjoy playing over those kinds of things, but as a composer it doesn't feel like it's my language when I write. Where I'm coming from as a writer tends to be more about merging all of my musical influences. I grew up in the '80s. All the music I've been hearing since then is what informs the sounds in my head, as much as Sonny Stitt and Dexter Gordon, who I've spent half my life checking out," he says.

"The reason this album is called Quartet is because it's the first time I've really felt that moniker. It gets tossed around so casually to describe the number of persons on the stage and who's leading that band. The so-and-so quartet. Most of the time, in the jazz world, it means one guy got the gig and three people are playing with him. It's a different set of people most of the time. It's rare it's actually a band that's together. This has been a band for me for two years. We play once a month in Los Angeles. We've had a residency at the Baked Potato for about two years. It is bass, piano, keys and drums ... This is actually the first time I've had a band that is a quartet. It also feels like the most sincere representation of my take on that."

It was recorded live, with a small audience, with all four musicians in the same room. No headphones. The session was also captured, tune by tune, and put on YouTube.

Reynolds has known Gwizdala for over 20 years, going back to the Berklee School of Music they attended. I've been playing with him for over 20 years. Gwizdala knew Sirota from Berklee. Horton has played for about a decade with Reynolds in LA.

The previous CD, Hindsight, had Rogers on bass, Goldberg on piano and Calvaire on drums "Great band. The only time we played together as a band was the two days in the studio when we recorded that album. That's the norm. You go in the studio and get the best guys you can for one day; if you're lucky two days. I'm proud of that album," says Reynolds. "But it's a different animal. There are certain things that are not going to happen until you're playing music with people, repetitively, over time. The chance to build that unspoken vocabulary is a rare thing."

The group did a tour of Europe early this year, to great acclaim. All of this surrounding a band that many people—especially in the booking and promoting end—were not particularly aware of. Reynolds used his social media acumen to turn it into a mostly sold-out tour.

"That was incredible. Over half of it was sold out. We played the Bimhuis [in Amsterdam, Holland. Listen to the show]. Four hundred people packed. People sitting on the floor, on the stairs. What people were responding to after every show ... I talked to so many people ... I don't remember one person saying, 'What an amazing saxophone solo' or 'What an amazing piano solo.' What people were moved by was the band chemistry. That's what we thrive on."

"It started with one person who wanted to bring me over to headline the London Saxophone Festival. That started the ball rolling," but their was a lack of big-time recognition that makes promoters balk at taking any risk. "So I made a bunch of YouTube videos and put out stuff to my email list and social media and I told people—Don't email me and ask 'When are you coming to Berlin? When are you coming to Madrid? Here's the booking agency. Here's their Facebook page. Their email. Their website. Tell them.' And people just blew it up. They got inundated with requests and that's why they booked the tour."

Something Lester Young could not have done.

In Germany, the promoter told Reynolds he could have booked a bigger venue and sold many more tickets, had he known more. He wasn't well known in Rotterdam, Holland, but left with a connection to possibly play next year's North Sea Jazz Festival. "I have a connection to the audience, but none of the in-between people have any idea who I am," says the bandleader.

In the U.S., he says, its a tougher task. Promoters stick to the top names and what hot CDs might be out. Nightclubs are the same. Reynolds is looking at a possible east coast tour, maybe midwest, but the logistics are difficult. It is also hard too fill in enough smaller gigs between major cities. He spent a considerable up-front money to pay the band, hotel bills, air fares and the like for the European tour.

The life of a musician is more blood, sweat and tears than glamour. "You do what you can. You play with other people and try to save up a bank to be spent on doing your own thing."

The journey to "his own thing" started at age 13. He was living in Jacksonville, Fla., having moved from his native New Jersey. Reynolds wanted to join the band to learn an instrument—not necessarily saxophone—and learn how to write music. He was interested in film music. He decided on clarinet, but his family couldn't afford it. He ended up getting a saxophone from a neighbor that was not being used. He began playing it on his own. "Somewhere I got a hold of a book that had a blues scale. I remember playing the blues scale and going, 'Oh. This sounds cool.' That was the beginning."

He says the first saxophone he remembers hearing was Kenny G, who was on the VH-1 music video station. Then he moved to Grover Washington and Cannonball Adderley. "Then at the arts school I was with young guys who showed me things like Sonny Stitt. It became like, 'Oh my gosh.' It kept going deeper and deeper. My biggest influences became Joe Henderson and Stan Getz. Two huge early influences because of their sounds." He listened to Coltrane's earlier period and also Stanley Turrentine, Gene Ammons, King Curtis and Ben Webster. Of more current players, Joshua Redman and Chris Potter made a strong impact. His listening expands today to Kenny Garrett, Branford Marsalis, Joe Lovano, Michael Brecker and Kirk Whalum.

In Jacksonville, he attended Douglas Anderson School of the Arts. It had a strong music program with a lot of jazz, and Reynolds had good mentors. He also sat in at night with the local piano trio. It was a god foundation and landed him at Berklee. "All most everything that I've done professionally can be traced back to the people that I met and the experiences there [Berklee]. That's where I met John Mayer."

At the Boston-based college school, he played at a club called Wally's where trumpeter Jeremy Pelt would lead sessions. "It was heavy. Those guys were calling tunes super fast. Playing all these obscure Art Blakey tunes. Stuff like that. You'd get up the courage to go up and get your ass handed to you."

But other nights, it was funk music. "Those were the ones that blew my mind. There's something about jazz nights—and I still find this to be the case—you get into jam session territory. It gets so indulgent and masterbatory. Often very dark. The music leaves the building so fast in 99 percent of jazz jam sessions, in my experience. On the funk night, the band was playing so together. People played so communitively. There's so much interaction. Things were happening as a group, not just one player at a time. Great players too. But the vibe was so wonderful. That was a real exciting moment for me, discovering that."

He graduated from Berklee and, as so many do, moved to New York City. But not much happened for Reynolds. He had a job with a soul singer. Did wedding gigs. Took odd jobs.

"You do what you can to survive," he says, "all the while feeling like I was pretty much failing because I didn't have some big gig right away. Graduating Berklee for me felt like a failure. I graduated summa cum laude. Top of my class and I was pretty depressed about it. [chuckles] If you were graduating Berklee, it means someone didn't come through and pick you up for a gig."

"The times have changed a lot since I was there. The music business has changed. The jazz business has changed. I was in New York for a long time, doing whatever I needed to do to be there. Meet people. Go to jam sessions. I used to play at Aaron Goldberg's apartment with people, which was really cool. He introduced me to a lot of wonderful musicians. I met him through Joshua Redman, who I'd met at the Monterey Jazz Festival. I was at Berklee and they sent my band out there to play. I met him and he became an important supporter of mine. A mentor. And he's become a great friend over the years."

His first major gig, he says, was with Mayer in 2007. He graduated in 2000. But things from there began to roll and his perseverance served him well.

About five years ago, Reynolds attended a NAMM conference and saw Snarky Puppy in concert. "I tweeted something about how amazing they were. I went back inside and I had a message from Chris Bullock, who is the main saxophonist in the band. He was a fan of mine from the records I had out at that point and the work I'd done. ...We met up. We hit it off really well."

Reynolds was invited to sit in with the band when they were in LA and a few months later he was invited to go to Europe and do a record, which was We Like It Here. He still plays with the group, though not as a mainstay. He played on the Grammy winning Culcha Vulcha

"We did a tour last spring in Europe at a same venue I played with John Mayer. It's a 5,000-person, standing-room-only thing. Brixton Academy [London]. It was sold out for Snarky, a line doubled around the block, for a nine-piece instrumental group. Pretty cool."

Snarky Puppy has burst on to the scene in recent years with awards and acclaim, but Reynolds is aware of, and admires, the grunt work that was done during years that the band struggled.

"Those guys had worked their tail off for 15 years. Some people think they just blew up. No. They spent 10 years going into massive credit card debt. Mike League is an amazing visionary person with a ton of conviction. He put everything on the line to make that band happen. If anybody thinks it's easy to keep a band like that together... forget finances, just personalities and whatnot. Those guys have my utmost respect. Incredible." Late in August, Reynolds was set to go to Texas for 10 days to record the new Snarky Puppy album.

"I've been fortunate that I've been able to carve out a space. I also do a lot of teaching. I built my own school and my own teaching studio through a website I created eight years ago. Through that I have students all over the world in more than 50 countries. That's a big part of my life too. I create new video lessons every couple weeks at this point. There are hundreds of them I have made over the years," he says. He also does master classes, guest appearances and finds time to do a video blog on on YouTube, called vblog, where he provides some tips for musicians and documents parts of what is going on in his career.

In July, Reynolds recorded his next CD release, this one more straight-ahead jazz with Larry Goldings on piano, Charles Ruggiero on drums and Alex Bonham on bass. "It's sort of like a left turn for me, doing music of an associated with Hank Mobley. It's done all in one room. I don't want to make jazz records with people in isolation booths where you're trying to make them sound like they're all in one room together, after the fact. Let's just play that way."

It's due out late this year or in early 2019.

In the meantime, "Everything is good. I keep trying to chase good music with good musicians. That's my compass."

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