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Lauren Sevian: Big Voice on the Big Horn

R.J. DeLuke By

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Swaying slightly, with eyes closed, Lauren Sevian pours a lot of heart and grit into the big, baritone saxophone—the largest of the most commonly played saxophones and an axe that looks even more considerable when seen against her small frame. She comes out with an imposing sound and welcoming style, put forth through a striking conception.

Sevian is a hard-working New York musician who's coming into higher recognition, abetted by some of the coolest big band gigs, including sitting among the excellent saxophones in the Mingus Big Band. But she's been impressing people for a long time now—well, a good portion of her not-all-that-many years—with her playing and musicianship. She first performed professionally at age 12 and seems to have constantly been involved with one band or another, one music program or another, while growing up in the small Long Island town of Miller Place.

Convinced she wanted to pursue music as a career early on, she won a competition in high school wherein the prize was getting to play a solo that same night with the Count Basie band. Sevian was playing alto at that point—nervous as hell, but she pulled it off. The experience reinforced that the direction she would take in music would be as a performer. She'd already fallen in love with jazz and her commitment to that calling has only gotten stronger.

In 2008, she came out with her first recording as a leader, Blueprint (Inner Circle, 2008), showcasing a band that really digs in and gets it done on tunes that cover a variety of moods, with creative original tunes. In 2010, she was part of the Grammy-winning Mingus Big Band—Live at the Jazz Standard (Jazz Workshop Inc. & Jazz Standard). She plays around the city in different settings, including the E-Flat band with her husband, saxophonist Mike DiRubbo. Sevian has played in all kinds of settings, but she's jazz all the way.

"Every day I need to have it in my life," she says without hesitation. "If I don't get a chance to play my saxophone, I don't feel complete. It's something I need. I feel like it's important to spread the message of this music. Jazz embodies so many different things like creativity, spirituality—a lot of different things. It's something I need to do. I feel like it's a calling for me. The days that I'm not doing something related to jazz, I almost have this edgy feeling. It's hard to describe."

It goes beyond that. Sevian is an artist for whom self-expression is important. She knows jazz symbolizes this and opens its arms to the makers of this music so that it can happen. "Nothing makes me happier than when I do a performance and it touches somebody. People are moved by it. That inspires me to continue doing what I'm doing," she says. "It's chance to express myself and be creative. It's a difficult life to be a musician; don't get me wrong. But it's this thing—I feel like I have to do it—something that I need in my life. And when I'm not doing it, I don't feel right. It's a very personal thing, for me."

The jazz thing brought her to New York City in 1997 when she came to study at the Manhattan School of Music. In school, she got a chance to get her first big tour experience when she went on the road with the Diva jazz orchestra. In a sense, that started a string of big band experiences for Sevian and her baritone sax, including, besides her Mingus gig, Valery Ponomarev's Big Band, the Jack Jeffers Big Band, the Harlem Renaissance Orchestra, Charlie Persip's Supersound, Mike Hashim's Billy Strayhorn Orchestra, Kendrick Oliver and the New Life Jazz Orchestra, the Sweet Divines, Earl McIntyre's Big Band, a Benny Goodman Tribute Orchestra, the Harry James Orchestra, the Howard Williams Jazz Orchestra, and Travis Sullivan's Björkestra. She also plays with small groups at various venues in the city, always busy trying to make it work.

It was saxophonist Greg Osby's Inner Circle label that took on her solo project, in 2008. "He was really supportive of me. He was the one that really pushed me and said, 'You have to put a record out.' That was important to me," says Sevian. She did it with colleagues pianist George Colligan, bassist Boris Kozlov and drummer Johnathan Blake, and the group cooks. "I've known all of them for a very long time. It seemed like a really good fit. It was a lot of fun playing with those guys ... It still feels fresh and new when I play it," she says.

The first, and title cut, "Blueprint," gets to the heart of the matter right away. The intro shows that the supporting trio means business and is off to a strong ride, and Sevian boldly steps forward, tearing up the boppish tune with unwavering strength and inventiveness. It's a robust debut.

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