Michael Pedicin: Compassion Joins Creativity

R.J. DeLuke By

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When I hear Trane play that sound haunts me in a positive way. That just got to my soul; to my core. —Michael Pedicin
Saxophonist Michael Pedicin, he of the rich tone and fertile imagination, is on a tear lately. His last three albums are remarkable, exhibiting both his catchy improvisational skill and simple beauty.

His 2011 album, Ballads... Searching for Peace (Jazz Hut Records) is that beauty on display and one of the best ballad albums to come a long in a while. Now, Pedicin has crafted an album of varied music, named for his view of how the world should be, Why Stop Now/Ubuntu (Ground Blue Records).

"I saw the world for the first time maybe two years ago," says Pedicin, who splits his time between a New Jersey home and a New York City apartment. "I'm one of those forever '60s people, always hoping for peace and better inter-connectedness in our world... The first visual depiction I had seen of the word 'ubuntu' was a missionary in Africa with an African tribal leader. Maybe 10 or 12 young boys were in a field playing, as any young guys would. This missionary had a huge cookie and he asked if he could give it to one of the boys. The leader said 'yes.' So he gave it to this young boy. The kid immediately bowed and nodded thank you. The he ran to his buddies and they all formed a circle. He broke a little piece off and passed it. They each took a little piece and continued to pass the cookie around until it was gone."

The boys enjoyed an equal serving and when the leader inquired, the word 'ubuntu' was used. Pedicin calls it "a humanist philosophy that we're all connected and we cannot thrive in isolation. We're all inter-connected, and what we have we need to share with others, as we need others to share with us."

That's a concept that appeals to the Philadelphia native, son and namesake of a successful soul/pop saxophonist who enjoyed a long career. Pedicin himself is enjoying a career that has him steeped in jazz education, but also playing and recording with excellent folks in the jazz world. Over the years, he's done stints with Maynard Ferguson and Dave Brubeck, among others, and even gone on to get a Ph.D. in psychology. He also spent countless hours in the studio, working with the songwriting and production team of Gamble and Huff, playing with the Spinners, the O'Jays, Lou Rawls, Teddy Pendergast, Stevie Wonder and more.

Pedicin kept pondering of ubuntu, "thinking if I would write a song maybe utilizing that concept. Or maybe have an album and call it that, or whatever... Even the 'Why Stop Now' idea is 'why stop now trying to promote this feeling of togetherness and that face that we're all in this world together. If we can only learn to live together and embrace each others' differences and unique characteristics, rather than abhor people's differences. What a better world this would be."

It came to fruition when Pedicin decided it was time for a new recording, but also one that featured his original compositions. The new album highlights his work, along with a couple by his longtime colleagues, guitarist Johnnie Valentino, and a couple by his idol John Coltrane. Four of the tunes are things he put to paper. But the title cut was different. In fact, there was no "Ubuntu" song until Pedicin was actually finished recording.

"I walked out of the room with my saxophone. Joe D'Onofrio [the engineer] said 'Come back in a minute and just play something.' I said 'What do you mean?' He said to play something. The way he put it was, 'Don't be fancy. Don't do a whole lot of technical stuff. Just go play some pretty music for a minute or two.' I went in and that's how that last piece came about. We ended up calling it 'Ubuntu.'"

Valentino penned the sweet ballad "Then I Saw You" and the ethereal "Newtown." Pedicin's sharp compositions are "Why Stop Now," "Downtown Found," "Trane Stop" and "27 Up."

"Johnnie Valentino is a prolific writer. If I call him and say I need three songs, within three days he has 10 songs for me to listen to. He's that kind of a guy. He's writes all the time. I write, most times, when I have a project in mind." He also found room to represent his biggest influence. "My love of, and infatuation with Coltrane, I wanted to get his in there. I picked two tunes of his that we don't hear very much of, other than when he did them. ["Song of the Underground Railroad" and "Tunji"] We treated 'Underground Railroad' different than he did it. We updated it and tried to get a little funk with it."

The album is another winner. But as far as playing live goes, Pedicin says it's his main regret. He plays steady gigs, but he'd like to get out and flex those muscles even more.

"I don't have a band that's intact all of the time because I don't tour enough. I wish I had the ability to do that. If there's one thing that is missing in my musical life, it's having the opportunity to play enough. Get out there and do more gigs. Even with the little success I've had with the last couple CDs, in terms of air play and some nice reviews, that connection for gigs is so difficult. That's the hard part. Keeping a band intact for playing, if not night after night, at least weekend after weekend. That's my biggest dilemma, I think, trying to get more work. Not just work for money, which we depend on to make a living, but work to play."

That would be regrettable for fans, because the sound of Pedicin is pure pleasure. He's come a long way since his first album, Michael Pedicin Jr., with an R&B lilt—though improvisational—with vocals that call to mind Brasil '66.

In Philadelphia, a main influence was his dad, Michael Pedicin, who "had a couple early successful records in the late 50s. One called 'Shake a Hand,' which was a number-one 45 rpm hit nationwide, a dance band hit, Dick Clark hit." His father is still healthy at age 96, and didn't stop working until he hit 80.

"But he would never travel. I remember as a child hearing stories from him and my mother. When agents would call and say, 'Your record just became number one in Chicago.' He would say, 'Thank you.' They would say, 'Would you want to do something there?' And he would say, 'No. I don't want to go to Chicago. I live here.' He played all the time because he played during that time when night clubs were active. He had the same band from the age of 17 until he was 80. When I asked him why he was stopping, he said, 'These guys are getting too old to play.' It wasn't him. The other guys were starting to forget keys and tunes, so he went out gracefully, as they say."

"He was my greatest influence in music as a saxophone, but he was not a jazz guy," says Pedicin. "He never introduced me to the music. I stumbled on the music myself, at maybe 13, when I came across my first Cannonball or Coltrane recording. I think I bought both of them around the same time together. From that moment on, that was the only music I listened to and wanted to learn."

He went to college for music at the University of the Arts and remained in Philadelphia until 1980. He was busy just about daily with Gamble and Huff, because, and by 1980, he did his first recording with them. But it was at that precise time that Gamble and Huff ended, the distribution eventually taken over by Columbia. But in the process, Michael Pedicin Jr. fell through the cracks. He moved to New Jersey to be close to the New York City scene and in the process became musical director for a show at a casino. In 1982, Brubeck asked him to join the band.

"I love Dave Brubeck as a human being. He was a good friend and a great leader," says Pedicin with reverence. "But at the age I was then, that music wasn't edgy enough for me. I stayed close to two years, then left and tried to do some things on my own." At one point, in Atlantic City, he was doing all of the music for five casino theaters. "I did it for five hotels all at once. That was kind of fun because I got to arrange some music and conduct some music."

Pedicin also spent some time in Los Angeles. He was accepted into the master's program at Julliard, but didn't go. He also went to medical school for a while. Then he went on the road with the Ferguson band. Later he went back to school and got his Ph.D. His degree, he notes, "says Doctor of Philosophy in cognitive and creative arts psychology. I was able to do a dissertation in that, which I actually presented to IAJE one year. 'The Neurological and Physiological Changes During the Creative Process.' It's old and out-dated now, from all we know from the MRI stuff that goes on. But I always wanted to try to figure out what made us able to do what we do, specifically talking about improvisation. I'm still so duly impressed by that phenomenon that some of us are blessed to be able to do. Subjectively, no matter how well we do it, but those of us that can do it, we still can't figure out why that happens. That spontaneous composition thing. As opposed to sitting down and writing a piece of music or painting a picture or something like that."

"That interested me a lot and I wanted to learn a lot about that. I thought if I got a Ph.D. and learned a little bit about that, I'd be able to maybe offer that to my students. So I never really did it to practice as a psychologist, though I got licensed anyway. I thought I would bring that back to my students, which I guess I always have. I've taught my whole life," he says. That includes at the University of the Arts after he graduated and at Temple University through 1989. It continues today. A few years ago Pedicin started teaching at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, where he is an associate professor of music. There he started a jazz studies program, "which is small and building. We're in our first year with the jazz major."

Through it all, as student and teacher, the pull has always been jazz and its improvisational maze.
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