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Odean Pope: A Singular Voice in the Choir

Elliott Simon By

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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.

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