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Jim Snidero: Flying in the Face of Adversity

Jim Snidero: Flying in the Face of Adversity Courtesy John Rogers
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Jazz is the only music that's both totally 100 percent soulful and incredibly intelligent. I can't really think of anything that is that deep in both of those realms.
Jim Snidero, a master of the alto saxophone, can look back on a strong career and more of the same in the future. But he admits events of 2021 have brought him immeasurable satisfaction.

It's because of the recorded music he put out this year on the Salvant label—one a fresh live release and one a re-release of a seriously artful work he recorded some years ago with a string orchestra. The music wasn't created as a reaction to the COVID situation in the world. One could say Snidero's accomplishments this year came in spite of world problems.

"This year has been something for me," says Snidero. "These are the two most significant projects in my life, Live at the Deer Head Inn and Strings. They both happened during major world events. They mean the most to me. Both of the projects. Because of the way that the music sounds. The way that we pushed through adversity."

That is high praise from someone who has had a stellar career leading strong bands and making excellent music. He recorded albums with Brother Jack McDuff when he was in his 20s, played in the Mingus Big Band, the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra, and Eddie Palmieri, among others. He also toured with Frank Sinatra. When someone with such a resume heaps praise on two projects, it must have meaning—this music is truly admirable and exemplary.

Strings was created—and had its creation disrupted—in New York City during the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. some 20 years ago, events that shook up the entire world. Live at the Deer Head Inn came as the world was reeling from the dire effects of the coronavirus pandemic—something the globe is still grappling with, though there has been some normalization and signs of hope.

Both superb pieces of music have their stories.

It was the year 2000 when Snidero, already known for his fierce post-bop sax chops that enable him to go toe-to-toe with anyone, was considering a new project and decided an album with strings would be a good creative change. He was familiar, naturally, with Charlie Parker's foray into that realm with Charlie Parker with Strings (Mercury Records, 1950). He planned on hiring an arranger who could infuse some jazz standards with the right nuance and create a tapestry over which he could improvise, but then the record label for the project backed out.

"I really had so much passion for the project—I love the lushness of a string section and we we don't get to do it very often. I decided I was going to learn how to write for strings. So I took about a year to do that. I did a lot of transcribing, talked to a lot of arrangers, took some lessons and then finally came to the point where I was able to write the arrangements."

He was going to do all original music, but then thought better of it. He added a couple standards for a common reference for listeners. Even then, he went with songs that were not commonplace, like "It's the Talk of the Town" and "Theme for Ernie."

In September of 2001, jazz violinist Mark Feldman helped him select the string players. Snidero chose pianist Renee Rosnes, drummer Billy Drummond, and bassist Paul Gill.

"I thought they would be perfect for this project, because they were very experienced. You have to fit in with something like this. I trusted that. Because we all recorded in one large room. There were baffles and everything. But it would be really scary if a drummer was over aggressive and I knew Billy can handle it," he says.

The rehearsal on Sept. 10, 2001 went very well. They were ready.

"Then the next morning, on September 11, we were on the way to the studio. All the attacks went down. The bassist and I were on a subway that went above ground in Brooklyn. And we saw the buildings on fire. When we got to the studio, a few of us were there and the buildings collapsed. That was the end of everything. And it's devastating on so many levels for me. That day was really tough." So were the ensuing weeks. But the musicians were able to regroup and recorded in late October and early November. That record came out in 2004 on Milestone. It garnered universal praise and the term "masterpiece" was part of several reviews.

Snidero recalls how the terrorist attacks affected the people in Manhattan where he lives, as well as the musicians when it came time to play the music.

"It was present 24/7. Smoke was everywhere for weeks. Memorials were put up all over town. I live 100 yards away from Rescue One, which is a very famous fire department rescue team. So many of those guys were killed. Flowers were there for weeks, and not just a few flowers. They were overflowing into the street. Thousands of flowers. So we just walked out of our apartment every day and it was as real as it could possibly be. So when we got to the studio, we had something to say."

"It was so gratifying, just standing on its own, musically, that both critics and the public appreciated it. You never know what the reactions going to be with strings. People just dismiss the notion of strings, automatically," he says. "I understand that there have been some very mediocre string projects over the years. But I was really determined to put my own personal stamp on this and turn it into something that I thought was creative and deep. Honestly, I was surprised it was so so well received. I knew it was good. But I was surprised by the fantastic comments and many 'masterpiece' reviews, that kind of thing. For me, after going through so much with the struggle of even making the date happen and learning how to arrange for strings and organizing a project and then having it completely crushed on 9/11. Then crawling our way back in and getting it out on a major label. To have that appreciated, I think it's the most gratifying project of my career."

There were a few places where he was able to perform it live. And there are some on the horizon in 2022.

"It's wonderful for me to have this renewal of interest. It's really opened up to a whole new audience. Because the project was never available on streaming platforms. It's been out of print for 10 years. So to have that new access to the listening public is fantastic. And it's regenerated interest in performing it live. Not only that, a large German publisher is publishing the music. So it'll be available to everybody. I'm so pleased about that and I think there's going to be a lot of interest going forward."

Snidero retained the rights to the music 10 years ago. He had it in mind that it would be a good project to release in 2021, the 20th anniversary of the tragedy. "I would have released it before if the conditions were right. But I was in no hurry to reissue it. Then when streaming became more prevalent, I guess it was maybe five years ago, I knew that I wanted to wait until 9/11, do it right and have it come out on a fine label like Savant."

Once on Spotify, "It got 300,000 listens in a month. To get that kind of exposure and help 20 years ago was impossible," he says.

Live at the Deer Head Inn is a collection of standards, played from the heart by his outstanding trio of Orrin Evans, Peter Washington and Joe Farnsworth.

Snidero says over the last eight years ago, he has moved away from playing straight down the bebop path, experimenting with some forms that are more free, with younger musicians like bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Rudy Royston. "Linda's on three of my last several records, and she brings something very different to it. The most recent one before the live record was Project-K, which has free music on it. That has Orrin, Linda, Rudy, and a great gayageuma player named Do Yeon Kim. (The gayageuma is a Korean folk instrument.) And I would say that no one would call most of that record straight ahead at all. It's quite adventurous with the textures. I was pushing myself for that. So that's been my direction lately."

COVID interrupted that arc. But, he says, "I feel that adversity kind of brings out the best in me, in a sense. That's what happened with 9/11. And that's what happened with COVID. Confronting adversity is kind of the stamp of my career, in a way.

"When COVID came up, I was going to do a record in the fall. I was going to play at the Deer Head Inn in June of 2020. That was canceled. All music was canceled at that point. Then I got a call from the club owner in August." He was told the club would re-open at 50 percent capacity and he was offered a date on Halloween. Snidero agreed. "Then I realized, as soon as I hung up the phone that I was going to do a live record. I just wanted to push back on the damn pandemic, and do a live record and document this time."

He was enthusiastic, but "it was a little bit intimidating, because, you know, I hadn't worked—none of the musicians had worked—in six months. So we had to trust each other up on the bandstand. When you're making a record potentially millions of people are gonna hear it. So trust was very important. The level of musicianship and skill was important. And it took a little bit of courage for everybody. There were no vaccines. This is October 31, 2020. People were in masks, socially distanced. We're in the restaurant bar and I had to play the saxophone without a mask. It took some courage, honestly."

"But I am so thrilled with the results. And so proud of the way that musicians rose to the occasion and played that music. I wanted to play music that everybody felt comfortable with. I didn't really have the desire to write new music and put everybody on the spot. So I thought standards were perfect. It was something I called 'comfort music' in the best sense of the term. To give people joy and warmth but still bring our feelings and depth and musicianship to the moment—to converge with the audience. And that's absolutely what happened. I can say that with all honesty. The critics have said the same thing. It was one of those special nights that we were all one. And I'm so proud of the whole project and the fact that it's been so well received."

The band tears through "Now's the Time," "Autumn Leaves," "Bye Bye Blackbird," "My Old Flame" and a few other chestnuts. It was all played from the heart, with the sense that music holds that special power of helping people heal.

"That's exactly what I felt when we did Live at the Deer Head Inn. There was a oneness enjoyed between the band and the audience that, on the deepest level, is satisfying and human. What more human act can you have? Maybe love. But making music from the heart with a certain amount of skill and artistry means that a great power be harnessed, that's for sure."

He arranged a tour this fall, the first since March of 2020. Snidero, who is only 63, has many more miles to go on his musical journey and is excited to be performing again.

He started on the path at about the age of 10. Snidero grew up in Camp Springs, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C. In elementary school he got involved in music and had good teachers all through his young years. That would continue when he would study with professionals, including his idol Phil Woods. But back in Camp Springs, "my parents and family were very supportive. But the stars kind of aligned for me. I went to the University of North Texas, one of the most storied jazz programs in the country. And then I moved to New York City exactly 40 years ago. I've been here ever since."

Not so fast.

"I was an alto saxophonist and I had a junior high band director that was an alto saxophonist. And that's what did it when I was only 13 years old. He's playing jazz for me on an alto saxophone. He said, 'Check this record, check this record.' And I said, 'Oh, my God.' When I was younger it was between being a forest ranger or a jazz musician. And I chose jazz musician. The very first time I played in our middle school big band, when I was maybe 12 or 13, I knew at that moment that this is what I was going to do. There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to be a jazz musician. From that moment forward, I just played the saxophone and jazz. That was it."

Snidero had teachers that had studied some with the iconic alto saxophonist, Phil Woods. Then there was a particular album that made an indelible impression, Phil Woods and his European Rhythm Machine at the Frankfurt Jazz Festival (Embryo, 1970). "I talked to Phil about that, because we were friends. When I heard that record, I just couldn't believe that the saxophone could sound like that. And someone can have that much facility and musicality. I just took off from that. That was my first real inspiration on the horn."

"But, you know, back, then you could go to a grocery store and they had record section, believe it or not. And I would go in there and pick out records. I remember one record that I loved so much was Rusty Bryant's Cold Duck Time on Prestige Records. It just knocked me out. I used to play along with that all the time. Then my high school band director got me into John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner. And basically, I was off to the races."

While in college at North Texas State there was a lot of work playing commercial gigs, parties and weddings, and at hotels, many of which had jazz on a regular basis. "I had a steady gig in Fort Worth five nights a week at a bar, for months on end. That kind of experience is hard to come by these days."

The youngster wasn't intimidated when he went to New York. He was prepared. He could play.

There, he studied for a bit with Dave Liebman. "He's a great mentor to me still to this day. One of the benefits of going to school like North Texas is that there were 125 saxophone majors there with me. So you go to New York and there are a lot of guys walking around that went to North Texas. In fact, my first gig with Brother Jack McDuff was through a fellow saxophonist from North Texas. So I got that gig within four or five months of being in town. I had plenty of hard times in the beginning in New York. I had day jobs and things like that. Lots of commercial work. But I wasn't really intimidated by it because I had lots of people around me helping me."

After McDuff, Toshiko Akiyoshi was another important influence—he worked with her in 1983-84 and they played at Carnegie Hall. "And Toshiko asked me—she was producing records for Toshiba, EMI in Japan—to do a solo record. That was really something else in 1984 to be asked at 25 or 26 to do a solo record."

"It's not like now. There were labels, and those labels were gatekeepers. They were very picky. So I did that. And that really put me on the map, so to speak. And then I started working as a soloist. I started recording for the Criss Cross record label. I worked with Eddie Palmieri. And then I started working with Frank Sinatra, and I did that for five years. I was in the East Coast band. That was a huge deal for me. I'm on the record Duets 2. That whole thing was about 1990-1996. It was fantastic. We played the big venues and world class music."

Since about 2000, Snidero has been mostly leading his own bands, recording as he sees fit.

"I get to do sideman gigs probably once or twice a year. But you know, there's a lot of young people out here that are great players. They're doing their thing, and they're being called for sideman gigs with other people, and that's very exciting. Guys my age or younger are looking for younger players that add energy and vibrancy to their groups. As far as I'm concerned, I'm happy that there's lots of great young players getting work and I have my solo career and recording career and everything's fine. I'm happy to do what I'm doing. And I'm happy if someone calls me to play with them."

He's also happy with his decision early in life that the avenue he would pursue was jazz.

"Jazz is the only music that's both totally 100 percent soulful and incredibly intelligent. I can't really think of anything that is that deep in both of those realms. And also swing. There's nothing on earth that feels like swing. And I do feel like on Live at the Deer Head Inn there is a serious sense of swing that is very rare today. The power of swing is undeniable."

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