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Odean Pope: A Singular Voice in the Choir


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People have different concepts and name titles. I like to think of myself as one of the forerunners of the Spirit.
Odean PopeGrounded in the Baptist spirituals of his youth followed by a musical upbringing in Philadelphia with the likes of John Coltrane and organist Jimmy Smith as mentors, tenor saxophonist Odean Pope is the bridge between hard bop and free.

His contributions to jazz are of major historical significance and through his over two decade long fruitful association with drummer Max Roach, groundbreaking saxophone choir, trio and quartet work and educational outreach he has influenced generations of musicians. At the same time, Pope cannot be pigeonholed and he has managed to maintain his creativity by continuing to innovate and perfect his sound. He remains an incredibly busy and active musician with many recent releases in a variety of settings. These sessions showcase his saxophone choir, Locked & Loaded Live at the Blue Note (Half Note, 2006); his spiritual horn recorded au natural, Serenity (CIMPoL, 2007); an inventive tribute to Max Roach, To The Roach (CIMP, 2006); a deliciously funky hip hop jazz fusion, The Misled Children Meet Odean Pope (Porter, 2008); and an exciting trio date with drummer Sunny Murray and bassist Lee Smith, Plant Life (Porter, 2008).

All About Jazz: You are characterized as on the cusp of hard bop and free jazz. Do you think of yourself in those terms at all?

Odean Pope: People have different concepts and name titles. I like to think of myself as one of the forerunners of the Spirit. Most people say I am on the cutting edge, I don't play a lot of traditional standards and most of my music is original music that was composed and arranged by me.

AAJ: You are also considered a "Philly" guy; what can you tell me about that?

OP: I came to Philly when I was around 10 and I feel blessed because I was really in the middle of the developing process here. John Coltrane, the Heath brothers [Jimmy: saxophone, Percy: bass and Albert: drums], Kenny [pianist] and Bill [saxophonist] Barron and [pianist] McCoy Tyner were still here with a whole host of great musicians. I still have some of the original scores that were passed down to me by [saxophonist] Benny Golson. During that period I was still developing and was playing standards. I started to write in the mid-'70s and I formed the saxophone choir in 1978.

AAJ: Did you have many interactions with Trane?

OP: Very much so and in fact he gave me my first gig with [organist] Jimmy Smith. When Trane went with Miles Davis in the middle '50s I was probably around 17 and Trane called me up and said "Odean, I am getting ready to go on a major gig and I have been sort of following you and I would like for you to complete this engagement I have with Jimmy Smith." I said well Trane I don't think I am ready for that and he said, "Well yes I think you can make it and you should make it because the school is on the bandstand and you learn a lot playing with people like Jimmy Smith." So I accepted that gig and after that a lot of opportunities opened up for me, shortly after that I got a job with [guitarist] Tiny Grimes.

AAJ: How did you hook up with Max Roach?

Odean PopeOP: Hasaan Ibn Ali, a keyboard player, Max had recorded him [Max Roach Trio featuring the Legendary Hasaan (Atlantic, 1964)] and he told Max that there is a tenor player in Philadelphia that he needed to hear. Hassan had been rehearsing with me for many years. Then [bassist] Jymie Merritt, I was playing with his Forerunners, independently said the same thing. Max was then like that's ironic because Hasaan had just told him the same thing. So, he introduced me and I went to NYC to audition. Max didn't like for any music to be on the bandstand, so I had to learn a whole book within two weeks. After working with him for about a year on tour that confirmed in my mind that music was going to be my livelihood and I came back home and practiced and studied and went back to school. I did that for about 12 years. In 1979, Max invited me back and from then until he retired, I worked with him.

AAJ: What moments stand out over all those years?

OP: There were so many bright moments working with Max because in addition to being a great innovator on his instrument he was also a great humanitarian. He was a big-brother, a father and he taught me so much. Shortly before Dizzy passed, I think it was 1988 or '89, there is a park in London that the Queen of England named the Max Roach Park. So the Queen set up an extended tour for the Max Roach Quartet featuring Dizzy Gillespie. That was like going to the highest institution in the whole world because there was so much information about people like [cornetist] Buddy Bolden or [pianist] Scott Joplin or going back to [saxophonists] Coleman Hawkins or Chu Berry. Every day I was practicing with Dizzy and it was just like going to the highest school. After that tour I felt so blessed to work with two of the greatest musical minds that this country has produced.

AAJ: Bassist Tyrone Brown, who played with you and Max and with your Saxophone Choir, stands out, especially his interaction with the strings, on some of those tunes like "Elixir." What can you tell me about that?

OP: Tyrone is definitely one of the great innovators of that instrument. In the early '80s we were getting ready to go to Europe and Max was formulating the double quartet. He asked me to coordinate and write and arrange some pieces so in addition to "Elixir," I did "Cis" and a couple of others. Those were some of the pieces that we would play every night. What I coordinated between the bass and the strings was like a high-energy prolific piece that opened up so many different doors and went into so many places. Every night when we would play that, we would get a tremendous response from the audience. I explained to them when you play you think in terms of inner reaction, collectively as well as individually, and they captured it right away.

AAJ: Your new bassist is another Philly guy who has been around for awhile?

OP: My new bassist is a killer and he is one of the best-kept secrets. He is Lee Smith who is Christian McBride's father and he has been playing with me for about a year and a half. I am doing a recording with him and with (drummer) Sunny Murray [Plant Life (Porter Records, 2008)].

AAJ: How did you come up with the concept of the saxophone choir? When I think of a lot of saxophones I think of the Mummers parade and I want to go in a different direction, but the choir is very spiritual and beautiful.

OP: Well, you know I was raised in the South, in South Carolina and every Sunday it was mandatory that you had to go to church and they had the big huge choirs. I used to do a lot singing and they had a junior choir that I was in. So, shortly after we came to Philadelphia, there was a theater called the Earl Theater and 10 days out of every month they would bring a major band in: Duke Ellington, Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson, Count Basie.

So, I tried to figure out what instrument could I use to capture the experience that I had in the big Baptist church. I started with the keyboard, and then I went to the bass and to the clarinet, then from the clarinet I messed with the flute and then back to the keyboard. Then one day when I went to the Earl Theater they had Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, Johnny Griffin and a whole host of saxophonists who were actually marching around in the theater playing. So I then said I want to play this instrument and when I played the tenor saxophone I said this is my voice. So I first tried writing for like a quartet and then an octet and I said well let me stretch out a bit and utilize nine saxophones and that's where it came from.

AAJ: I noticed on the Saxophone Choir's CD, Locked & Loaded Live at the Blue Note there is a song dedicated to Prince Lasha and that he also recorded with your trio on The Mystery of Prince Lasha (CIMP, 2006). What is your connection with him? (Prince Lasha passed away shortly after this interview)

OP: Prince is like history in a sense. Many, many years ago he had a big house in NYC. All of the great musicians: (saxophonists) John Coltrane, Sonny Simmons, Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman, in fact he and Ornette went to school together, they all used to hang out in Prince's house. Prince is a great instrumentalist. He plays the alto, the baritone, the flute, the bass clarinet, the e-flat clarinet, and practically all of the woodwinds very well. He was in NYC for a long period of time and he had all of the people working with him like [pianist] Herbie Hancock, [drummer] Elvin Jones, all of the great ones worked with Prince Lasha.

He moved to the West Coast in maybe the late-'60s, where he bought a big, big house on a hill. He always had a big house and all of the musicians when they went to the West Coast he would encourage them to stay at his place. There they could practice and have the flexibility to eat good. He was into real estate by trade and he made a lot of money doing that. So you would go out there and he would take you out to dinner and you would get the best seafood or whatever you wanted. In the late-'70s, I think it was 1977, when I did the first tape of my saxophone choir, he heard it and fell in love with the tape and contacted me. So, about three years later when we went out to San Francisco with the Max Roach Quartet to play the Keystone Corner, a very famous jazz club there, of course I had to stay at Prince's house. He picked me up at the airport and I was treated like a king. He was such a being that I thought it was very appropriate to write a composition about him. He is an excellent musician and he was instrumental in introducing me to Ornette Coleman who wrote the liner notes on Locked and Loaded.

AAJ: Yes, that must be an amazing story as well. How did that happen?

Odean PopeOP: It is very strange, man, because Prince came into town the week that I was doing the recording and he sat in and played some. We have about eight or nine more tunes in the can and if they release that he will definitely be on some of those cuts. But he took me to Ornette Coleman's place and introduced me to him. He has a great big loft and he told Ornette that he had to come down one night. When I told the producer, Jeff Levenson, that Ornette was going to be coming, he said to me you must be kidding because Ornette probably hasn't been down to the Blue Note in like 25 years. So he came down to the club and he really liked the music and he said, "Odean, I would really like to do the liner notes."

AAJ: Your tone and sound are incredible. How did they develop?

OP: Well, I am very fussy about sound. A couple of my professors when I was coming up said never sacrifice tone for technique. Even today, my first priority when I go in my basement in my studio is, "how can I better enhance my tone quality?" It comes from focus, consistency, hard work and discipline. I feel left out if I am not able to still practice three hours a day and I try to practice more than that if possible.

AAJ: You are involved with music education, how do you find that?

OP: I have been doing this kind of thing for about five or six years with Philadelphia's University of the Arts and Strings for Schools and I find that it is very inspiring to work with young musicians. I will give you an idea of what I have going on today. I have about 18 different percussion instruments that I utilize with the students along with me playing and some of the students playing and it turns out to be something very special. I have been having a ball working with the youngsters. Currently in my saxophone choir I have some killers like [pianist] George Burton and [drummer] Craig McIver.

There are some young great musicians coming out at this time and they in one sense are blessed to have all of this modern technology. Today with the modern technology they don't have to study as much as my generation who didn't have it. But every generation no matter how you look at it is going to have very exceptional musicians. Like Wynton and Branford Marsalis, who in their generation are very gifted very exceptional horn players. Also, Walter Blanding who is the tenor player with Wynton is one of the guys who you are going to be hearing from.

Odean Pope AAJ: On your quartet CD, To The Roach, you use guitarist Matt Davis for an innovative tribute to Max Roach. Why did you decide to do that?

OP: The guitarist is my student. When he first came to the class he was very young and he wasn't reading all that well and he wasn't improvising. But, there was something that led me to believe that there was going to be something special about him. He would come every week to my workshop and he and these other young guys were so creative, so energetic and were playing their butts off. So at some point I knew I was going to have to utilize these guys. Last year, I thought that it would be appropriate to utilize him in some fashion. So I called [producer] Robert Rusch up and said I have something kind of special that I would like to do. I had never recorded with a guitarist except for with Tiny Grimes, and I would like to do something a little different. After about a week or so he called me back and he said let's do it.

AAJ: Serenity is like Odean Pope naked soloing among nature. What can you tell me about that?

OP: I have been recording for Bob Rusch at CIMP in Redwood, New York for 10 years he has like a big farm out in the country. Normally the way I record is that I have rehearsed everything before I get there and we then drive up, about a six-hour drive. We usually get there about four in the afternoon, we rest for about an hour and then his wife, Susan, prepares dinner and we eat. Then shortly after dinner we go into the studio and start recording and for the most part I would complete all of the pieces that night. I then get up around four in the morning, go outside and practice. This morning we had just finished To the Roach and the birds were out there and I usually go out and play spirituals. I was unaware but Rusch was recording and then I heard him say that this would be a wonderful concept. He was thinking of starting another label and he wanted me to do a CD of solo spirituals and that is how it came about. It was raining the night before and there were people holding umbrellas over the engineers and myself and my horn. The birds were out and it turned out very nice.

Selected Discography

Odean Pope, Plant Life (Porter, 2008)

Odean Pope Saxophone Choir, Locked & Loaded: Live at the Blue Note (Half Note, 2004)

Odean Pope Trio, Ninety-Six (Enja, 1995)

Odean Pope Saxophone Choir, The Ponderer (Soul Note, 1990)

Max Roach Quartet, In The Light (Soul Note, 1982)

Catalyst, The Funkiest Band You Never Heard (Eponymous/Perception/Unity/Tear and a Smile) (Muse-32 Jazz, 1972)

Photo Credits

Top Photo: John Abbott Photography
Bottom Photo: Ellen Rosenberg

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