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An interview with New York-based saxophonist Mark Lopeman

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It's fitting that the cover of saxophonist Mark Lopeman's latest album, Nice Work If You Can Get It, is a watercolor portrait from his daughter Rosie. After all, Lopeman approaches his instrument like a painter himself, utterly spellbinding in his ability to illustrate various moods from the unbridled joy of “My Reverie" to the warm caress of “I'm a Fool to Want You" to the gentle introspection of “Everything Happens to Me." Stellar musicians such as the New York-based Lopeman aren't simply born; they are made, creatively evolving as the years pass. Lopeman discusses his roots in this in-depth interview.

Q: When did you decide to become a saxophonist?

A: That was really sort of a natural process. I don't remember there being any definite point when I sat down and decided, “I want to be a saxophonist when I grow up," or anything like that. I just started on the saxophone in grade school, and I liked it right away and played in all the school bands and everything. I also started to write almost as soon as I started to play. Then when I was in high school and started getting involved with some outside groups, I started getting calls to play gigs for money. By then I already thought of myself as a saxophonist, and I never had any other plans or ideas back then to do anything else. Now that I think about it, when I was really little, like 6 or 7 years old, before I even started to play, I had this idea that I was going to be an ornithologist. I guess that's kind of ironic. I knew all the names of all the birds and field markings and stuff. But I forgot about all that pretty soon.

Anyway, when it came time to graduate from high school the subject came up sort of head on but I never really considered doing anything but music. I know my parents must have agonized a lot about it, but not me. Then, as luck would have it, I got this scholarship at Kent State University and a requirement of that was that I declare an academic major, so I was officially a math major. I didn't care; I liked school, and I would take whatever classes they wanted me to take, but mainly I took music classes and played in the bands and hung around the music school and practiced. Eventually I transferred to the Eastman School of Music and, of course, that is a real conservatory and there it was pretty much assumed that you were preparing for a music career of some kind.

Q: Growing up, what saxophonist did you admire the most? Which of them had the most creative influence on you?

A: I always thought of myself more as a musician first and a saxophonist kind of incidentally, so my real idols in high school were writers—Gil Evans, Thad Jones and also two people from Akron, where I grew up, Pat Pace and Bill Dobbins. Also, Miles Davis and Gerry Mulligan. At first I was mostly into big bands, too, more than other kinds of jazz music. As far as saxophone goes, I initially tended to be more influenced by people who I actually played with than by records, but by and by I started listening to records really seriously and I liked all the usual guys—you know, Bird, Coltrane, Stitt. Johnny Hodges. Charles McPherson. I always felt really close to some players like Paul Desmond and Stan Getz. Really, I liked the whole spectrum of jazz music—anything with a saxophone in it was interesting to me! Later on when I was at Eastman both Phil Woods and Eddie Daniels came and gave clinics and concerts while I was there, and I went through a whole long phase of studying both of them.

Q: How would you describe your artistic evolution? In what ways do you feel you have grown?

A: Oh gosh, it is pretty hard to talk about yourself in such serious terms. But I will say that when I was at Eastman I took all the classes with Bill Dobbins that I could, and I collected all that material, of which he gave us a lot, and it pretty much has taken me the rest of my life to try to really assimilate it all, to really understand the history of jazz and be able to use that in my own music. And I also think that has been a little harder for me than it otherwise might have been because I was mainly playing alto back then and since then I have sort of focused more on the tenor (although I do play all the saxophones and various other instruments, too) and that is in some ways a much broader field, by which I mean there are just so many great tenor players to listen to and try to learn from. And I am always trying to develop my ears, too, and to be more open and relaxed when I'm playing so that I can react to what is going on around me in a good way, rather than just be sitting there trying to fit in some preconceived idea of what I am going to play, or what I think I ought to sound like. I read once where Toshiko Akiyoshi said that jazz is a “social art" and “when you play with people who are better than you, you become better"—and I've had lots of opportunity to play with people who are better than me, so I hope she was right!

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