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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.

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