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Lenny Pickett: Equal Opportunity Explorer

R.J. DeLuke By

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Learning improvised music is something you usually do at the feet of the masters. —Lenny Pickett
Lenny Pickett is one of those tenor saxophonists who people have heard over and over and, if they're not paying attention, they don't realize it. If they are listening, they will probably pick up on his wailing altissimo phrases and his ballsy, funky sound.

He's one of those players, like David Sanborn, who has played on a gazillion albums of people from the pop, soul and rock world. Like Sanborn, he has maintained a sound that is all his own. He's also comfortable in the jazz idiom, and has done many a gig in that genre. He's a professor of jazz saxophone at New York University. Pickett's gutsy playing reaches immeasurable ears via his work each week with the Saturday Night Live band on the popular NBC television series of the same name. He started with the band in 1985 and has been its musical director since 1995.

"So many jobs," says Pickett, taking a glance back at his career. "Lots of interesting standout moments in every kind of variety you can imagine. Rock n' roll and blues bands. Swing bands. You know, what musicians do. Play to entertain people. Watch them dance. I always enjoyed that part of it. The part where you play for people to dance. Play to entertain people. I always felt that was a real honor, to be asked to entertain people."

Entertain he has, whether it blowing the roof off places with the Tower of Power horn section, soaring off on a tour with David Bowie, playing music for dance and theater, or adding his sound to albums by Elton John, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Rod Stewart, Kate Perry, Robert Palmer, Ziggy Marley, Marianne Faithful, Paul McCartney and many, many more, Pickett's playing is always alive and energetic. There's jazz, R&B and soul coming out of the bell of that horn.

"There's such an interesting mixture in those musics. If you listen to do-wop records of the '50s, you hear a lot of [the influence of] Gene Ammons and people like that on those records," he says. "Those Ray Charles records with Hank Crawford. Those guys were bebop players as well. It wasn't just one or the other. If you look at the history of people like John Coltrane, who played with Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson and people like that. The mixture of the influences. It's been a mixture for a very long time. A lot of people think of Stanley Turrentine as being as R&B player. But a lot of people think of him as a jazz player. The influences are all different things."

"I'm sort of an equal opportunity explorer," he says, which neatly sums up, if that's possible, his musical palette. "In terms of my livelihood I headed in the direction of making music for the record-buying public. I've had a long career playing that. But all the musicians in my band, most of them have degrees in jazz or something like that." Indeed, the SNL band that cranks out music at 30 Rock in Manhattan each Saturday night includes folks like Steve Turre, Ron Blake and James Genus.

This year, Pickett made a bigger footprint in the jazz world when he released Lenny Pickett with the UMO Jazz Orchestra: The Prescription (Random Act Records). (Oddly, it's only the second album where Pickett is stamped as the leader, although he is a central and seminal figure in the Borneo Horns and Tower of Power). It's a recording of his music, mostly, with a jazz band from Finland, recorded in Helsinki. The arrangements, 10 in all, are jazzed up, including the 1973 song that Tower of Power made a hit, "What Is Hip?"

"I've been a sideman on jazz records, but this is the first record that I've done with my name on it that I could comfortably call a jazz record," Pickett says. "But it was because I was working with a group of musicians that were steeped in the tradition. That is what they imagine themselves to be. That's what they call themselves. I was very comfortable with them and they with me. But when I play with them, I don't alter the way I play. I just play the way I always play."

The result is a joyous romp through tunes that the eclectic Pickett selected. Some of the arrangements are by the saxophonist, others by his colleague Rich Shemaria, who also wrote "A Sad State of Affairs." "Busted Again" is a bluesy offering, where Pickett cries and moans appropriately; down and dirty. The ballad parts of "XV" and "XVII" bring forth the rich depths of Pickett's sound. "The Big Wiggle" is swinging bop, and Pickett shows he can negotiate that and still have that unmistakeable sound and feel.

The germination of the idea came about in 2006 from Finnish saxophonist Jouni Jarvela, who was interested in Pickett's playing, from hearing records from the U.S. as a youngster. Eventually, UMO had Pickett come and play as a guest. They played charts he and Shemaria had written. On the second performance, a recording was suggested. They played together again in 2008. But the recording didn't occur until 2012.

"I enjoyed it. They're really good musicians. They all seem to be jazz scholars," says Pickett. "They know that music really well. They were very flexible and they enjoyed the experience of it. There was a lot of good feelings exchanged. It was sort of effortless. We did do rehearsals and all that. It didn't require any convincing. They were very enthusiastic about the music and very talented. It was pretty straight forward... I had written most of the material. I gave Rich some recordings and charts of different ensembles playing a variety of music. He picked out some music he thought would work well for his arranging talents. Then he wrote some things on his own and I wrote some arrangements on my own. We recorded a bunch of material. The record represents about half of what we worked out."

A CD release party was held July 22 at the Jazz Standard in New York City, but with a small group. Pickett will be doing some work with UMOP in September. He says that perhaps next year some touring can be arranged using the big band charts.

Meanwhile, Pickett is as busy as he needs to be, between teaching, SNL and other projects. Not bad for someone who someone is largely self-taught—a term he feels is more figurative, not literal.

"­Self-taught is a term you use when you didn't go to school," says the affable Pickett, who has an easy wit and a focused way of telling stories. "I didn't finish ninth grade and I didn't go to university. I had very little of what you'd call formal training. Learning improvised music is something you usually do at the feet of the masters. I spent a lot of time playing with a lot of musicians and in that sense I wasn't self-taught, because I was taught by the people involved in playing this music and their experiences. I learned by listening. I listened to records. That means you're learning from somebody, because somebody had to make the record. But very little formal training."

Pickett, from the Berkeley, California area, did take some clarinet lessons at about age 9 and played in the school band and orchestra, but that stopped at about age 13. However, his stepfather was a bebop trumpet player and he picked up things listening to him. He learned more from jam sessions and hanging out with other musicians. A friend in his neighborhood, Burt Wilson, was a saxophonist with whom Pickett spent a lot of time. He gleaned a lot from Wilson.

"It was not very much in the way of an actual lesson," says Pickett. "It was an occasional line scribbled out. That sort of thing... it's a form of education, but it''s not like going to jazz school or taking lessons all the time." he was also a voracious listener, checking out all styles of music.

"I grew up with that. The fluid interchange between a myriad of music. When I was with Tower of Power, we were opening for Santana. He had Leon Thomas singing. And he had Leon Ndugu Chancler playing drums, who ended up playing with Weather Report for a time. I think among musicians—it depends on the group—but among the older and more sophisticated musicians you find less of a schism between those two forms. One was more like dance music and one was more listen-to music. If you listen to Lou Donaldson, he played 'Alligator Bugaloo,' but he also played on the quintessential bebop recording with Horace Silver and Art Blakey and Clifford Brown. (A Night at Birdland, Vol 1 and A Night at Birdland, Vol. 2, Blue Note, 1954) Those musics are all out of the same diaspora, the same germination.

"But I've never had any issue with going back and forth. I listen to everybody. I was a big Sonny Rollins fan. But also King Curtis and Junior Walker. Illinois Jacquet. All sorts of people. I feel comfortable. I don't feel put off by any of it. I've spent a lot of time teaching myself how to improvise over lots of different varieties of chord changes so my ear is ready for whatever environment I find myself in."

As his playing developed, Pickett was doing more gigs. He began playing with a lot of modern dance and theater groups. He purchased recording equipment, including an eight-track mixer he put together with some synthesizers, with help from Patrick Gleeson, a synthesizer player who had done some work with Herbie Hancock in the 1960s. He eventually hooked up with Tower of Power, a group in the 1970s that made a big mark on the pop and funk scene. They recorded their first album, Tower of Power in 1973.

All the while, Pickett was teaching himself how to compose using a simple method: playing into a tape recorder. "You write one line, then you write another line. You play it together. You improvise something else. You try figure out what it was you did and you write it down. Over some years, I was figuring out how to combine sounds and make music out of that."

In 1983, David Bowie hired a horn section to go out on his "Let's Dance" tour. "He hired me and two other saxophone players," recalls Pickett. "One of them was someone I'd grown up with in California. The other was Steve Elson, someone I knew from junior high school. The other saxophonist, Stan Harrison, I had met in New York. They had both done the recording. (Let's Dance, EMI, 1983). I hadn't. Then [Bowie] hired the three of us to be the horn section for the tour."

Without his tape recorder, Pickett began to write down music as it came to him, and he had saxophonists with some down time on the tour to help him eventually hear what it sounded like. The music eventually came to light on an album Pickett did with a band he would soon form called the Borneo Horns.
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