George Garzone: Steering Clear of Ideology


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George GarzoneAn esoteric system and guru status among musicians makes for an easy target in today's niche-driven market. Terms like musician's musician and classicist start getting thrown around as a way to commodify and explain away public indifference. This, luckily, is a non-issue for George Garzone. The veteran saxophonist has avoided pigeonholing his entire career, letting his emotionally resonant music speak for itself. "We never put in any boundaries on the music," said the saxophonist of his longstanding group The Fringe on a break between classes at the New School, "Fuck it, we just go for it."

Born in Boston into a family of saxophonists, Garzone spent his formative years studying with his uncle Rocco Spada, who introduced his precocious nephew to legendary woodwind instructor Joe Viola. Under Viola's mentorship, Garzone continued to advance and gradually get involved in the vibrant Boston music scene. "I was able to start gigging when I was twelve," recalled Garzone. After high school, he made the natural move to Berklee, where he continued to study with Viola—the woodwind Chair—and develop enduring musical relationships. "I met [Joe] Lovano and Kenny Werner at Berklee. [John] Scofield was there too, but was a couple years younger."

After graduation, Garzone toured the world with Woody Herman and the singer Tom Jones before settling in Boston and co-founding The Fringe, an improvising trio that has been the preferred setting for hearing Garzone's galvanic improvisations for over thirty years. With drummer Bob Gullotti and bassist Richard Appleman (replaced in 1985 by John Lockwood) Garzone drew heavily from John Coltrane's groundbreaking later work along with rock and world influences to inform the group's free associative ethic. Unlike much of the free music of the 1960s—often overshadowed by political messages and outright anger---The Fringe steered clear of ideology. Making music was the group's first and only concern.

George Garzone / The Fringe

"The cult-like following over more than a quarter century for The Fringe is based on their ability to present the totality of the jazz experience in each of their performances," explains Milan Simich in the liner notes to the group's 2000 NYC album, The Fringe in New York. All this while possessing the Zen-like quality of, in Simich's words, "seeking deeper and deeper truths from within itself." This agenda-free approach and the inexhaustible wealth of ideas that each member brings to the group's performances has allowed The Fringe to stay fresh, bringing to the blues and the wildest avant-garde playing the same focus and detached, meditative quality. "It keeps getting better and better," explained Garzone. "We're all maturing. There's no band, other than The Stones or The Grateful Dead, that's been together for so long." Summing it up to writer Ed Hazell, Garzone explained, "I love doing the free thing because that will never reach the end."

Like his concept, Garzone balances his free excursions with more traditional efforts as a leader and sideman. He is a member of the Joe Lovano Nonet, has performed with Kenny Werner, Rachel Z and Jamaaladeen Tacuma. "I try to balance the outside with the inside; It's a yin and yang," explained Garzone. As arresting as his free playing can be, Garzone is equally brilliant inside the changes. On Alone (NYC), his 1995 tribute to Stan Getz, his glowing renditions of standards are as inspired and heartfelt as the definitive tracks recorded by his idol.

Around the time he was forming The Fringe, Garzone began teaching at his alma mater in 1975. "I never wanted to teach," recalled Garzone, but a diminished jazz scene and increasing responsibilities led to his taking the position in Berklee's woodwind department. The decision was a fateful one for the saxophonist. He has gone on to teach and give clinics around the world and mentor a generation of musicians, including Joshua Redman, Danilo Perez, Branford Marsalis, Luciana Souza and Seamus Blake, among many others. Gaining fame in academic circles also helped Garzone as a performer, as devoted proteges typically dominate his audiences.

George Garzone Unlike other musicians who reluctantly enter academia, Garzone has embraced the mentor role and has been one of the field's true innovators. Starting in the late 1970s, he conceived the chromatic triadic approach, a harmonic template designed to give an improviser harmonic freedom through a strict adherence to rules designed to force the player out of familiar harmonic territory. Think of it as a kind of twelve-tone method for improvisers. "I tell these kids that if you can figure out two or three notes that run a little different than everyone else's, you'll be working your ass off. I figured out how to veer away from what everyone else was doing," he explained. The concept involves connecting triads in all manner of inversions by half steps, thus forcing the improviser to abandon the traditional bebop orthodoxy taught in schools and approach something closer to true harmonic freedom. "At this point, coming up on 2010, you need to be playing something else. Lennie [Tristano] and Lee [Konitz] were blowing this shit in the 1950s. Controversy is a good thing and that's what my concept creates."

Garzone's controversial concept is due out in print this year [2008] from JodyJazz publishing. The Chromatic Triadic Approach features an instructional book and DVD of Garzone demonstrating his concepts and is geared toward musicians who can't learn the concept directly from its creator. "I put together this process on the blackboard and bandstand. It doesn't look good on paper; it needs to be demonstrated," remarked Garzone and the printed method attempts to do both. If it's successful, it could introduce a whole new group of creative musicians to the saxophonist's concept toward achieving harmonic freedom and would be a double boon. "The hardest crowd to convince is the students. That's your most critical audience. If they like it, you're in; if not: you're out."

Selected Discography

George Garzone, One Two Three Four (Stunt, 2006)

The Fringe, The Fringe: Live at Zeitgeist (Resolution, 2005)
George Garzone, The Fringe in New York (NYC, 2000)

George Garzone, Four's and Two's (NYC, 1996)

The Fringe, It's Time for the Fringe (Soul Note, 1992)

The Fringe, Raging Bulls (Ap-Gu-Ga, 1986)

The Fringe, Eponymous (Ap-Gu-Ga, 1978)

Photo Credit
Ayn Inserto

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