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Don Aliquo: The Man, The Music, The Journey

Ludwig vanTrikt By

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Geography is a central theme in the life and artistry of Pittsburgh's native son, Don Aliquo. The saxophonist, educator and bandleader is part of a rich steel town jazz lineage which includes his father, Don Aliquo Sr., a performing artist and teacher in his own right. There is also a metaphorical geography, in which Aliquo covers virtually all aspects of the jazz experience, from daunting mainstream swing to edgy, modernistic genres.

All About Jazz: As a Professor of Saxophone and the Director of Jazz Studies at Middle Tennessee State University, you have become an adopted Tennessean, but your roots in Pittsburgh go back quite deep. Please comment.

Don Aliquo: Yes, I grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh and spent a good bit of my adult life there as well. The place has been an important part of my development, for sure. First of all, my father, Don Aliquo, Sr. [saxophone], has been one of the city's most popular jazz musicians over the past 30 years.

He really is quite amazing. At 77 years old, he is still very active playing and practicing (and playing well, I might add). And his support for the jazz scene and his mentorship of younger players is immeasurable. I sometimes have to remind myself that I have been extremely lucky to have such a great mentor. It's players like him who really keep jazz alive!

I also came up at a time where there was a lot of young talent in Pittsburgh: players like Frank Mallah [trombone], David Budway [piano, composer], Jeff "Tain" Watts [drums], Ned Goold [saxophone], and Andy Fite [guitar]—all of whom were playing great. It also seems as if there were lots of places where you could go to sit in and try to play some music. I think I caught the tail end of a vibrant club scene in the city.

Finally, Pittsburgh is a great place to live and work. The city has its own character and unique personality and I am happy to have been influenced by so many great artists who have lived there or grown up there. The list of those players would be a long one, for sure!

AAJ: The first thing one notices about your playing is the tonality—how did you develop that unique sound?

DA: Thanks for saying so. For me, it is the most important characteristic of an instrumentalist's playing. I have had some really great teachers who have preached a "sound first" philosophy that I try to adhere to and that I definitely preach to my own students! Those [saxophone/woodwind] teachers would be Don Aliquo Sr., Eric Kloss Joe Viola and Marino Galluzzo.

By "sound first," I mean that no matter what you are practicing—technique, scales, et cetera—you are always working on tone quality as well. I think it is a good philosophy. Actually, I really enjoy working on long tones and overtones!

Beyond that, though, I am really low-tech when it comes to equipment. I played two Otto Link metal mouthpieces for about twenty years on tenor, but a few months before [one of my] recordings I knew I was ready for a change. I knew I wanted a mouthpiece that would help drive the kind of ideas I had been hearing. I had been looking for a bit warmer tone that wasn't as piercing but was a bit more voice-like. The answer came when I played some saxophone quartet gigs in Nashville with friends. I was playing a Selmer C* and was amazed at how comfortable it was. I ordered a Selmer F [hard rubber] and two weeks prior to recording, switched to that one. And currently I am getting the same warmth with a bit more edge from a Vandoren V16!

Of course the sound doesn't come from equipment, but the equipment can help. In fact, I like to think of sound emanating from the heart first, the head second, and the body last!

AAJ: One of your key past gigs was with drummer Roger Humphries—please tell us about the man and the gig.

DA: Well, Roger is just a super guy and certainly one of the best drummers I have played with. To have the opportunity to play with him every week for several years was really a blessing. To say he is gifted is an understatement! He just has incredible ears and instincts for jazz. He has mentored so many jazz players in Pittsburgh through hosting jam sessions, hiring young guys for his gigs and just by playing his ass off consistently night after night! And he is still doing it! Since I have moved, I have a new appreciation for what he has accomplished.


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