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Odean Pope: Preaching With the Choir

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Trane gave me his gig with Jimmy Smith when he left to go with Miles. I was shocked that he called me, I said, 'Do you think I can handle this,' and he said, 'I know you can.'
Odean PopeAfter more than forty years of being a highly regarded musician's musician, saxophonist Odean Pope threatens to break out into mass consciousness with the release of his sizzling tour de force session with his Saxophone Choir, appropriately titled Locked and Loaded: Live at The Blue Note (Half Note, 2006). While he also works in trio and quartet settings, his signature Saxophone Choir fulfills his early desire to translate the power and majesty of a gospel choir to his beloved reeds. Featured on the live recording are soloists who grew up inspired by Pope's musical vision, including Michael Brecker, Joe Lovano, and James Carter. And why not? Pope gives grateful acknowledgment to the great musicians who came before him, all links in the unbroken lineages that flow like rivers through jazz.

All About Jazz: How's your busy schedule?

Odean Pope: It's good to be busy, I think. I welcome that. Ever since I did the recording seems like all kinds of things have been taking place, and I'm just grateful. I'm glad to be in this position right now, a lot good things have happened since I did the recording. This upcoming week, Tyrone Brown, George Burton and myself fly out to San Francisco. We're going to do another recording session, Donald Bailey and I are going to be the two leaders. Donald used to play drums with Jimmy Smith. It's going to be a good date, I think. It's going to be a three day live recording session and we're going to pull Freddie Hubbard in to do a few things with us. So, I'm really looking forward to that.

AAJ: Will you be hooking up with Prince Lasha while you're in the Bay Area?

OP: I just talked to Prince today. Yes, of course, we'll probably be together every day. Every time I'm in San Francisco, we definitely be together in Oakland, or wherever, I always hook up with him. I met him in 1979. I'll tell you what happened: Charles Borne, used to work with Philly Joe Jones at the time, he went to San Francisco and we'd recorded about six cuts of my first Saxophone Choir, and he took a tape out there. Prince heard it, and about six month later I went out there with Max Roach and I met him, and we've been pals ever since.

To me, he's a very special person. He would give you the shirt off his back. I mean, every time I go out to California I have to stay with him, he picks me up at the airport, he's just very special. Takes me out to nice restaurants. He's got what he calls a DeLear, it's a two seater and he always picks me up in that. It's like an $80,000-$100,000 car. We just cool out. There's a nice place in Oakland he takes me, right on the water. Seafood restaurant. To show you how much prestige he has and how much people love him there, we go to a Chinese restaurant and when he tells them, this is my personal friend from back east, they fix up a very special meal for us. He's got the magic, where he can just talk to people and the people love him. In addition to being a great musician, he's a very nice person.

AAJ: How did you get Freddie Hubbard on the new session?

OP: Freddie and I go way back. When I met Freddie, Max Roach and his group were going to India. He was on the same flight. We flew from New York to London and from London to India, and we had a long talk and he's very special. There's a place we used to work in LA from '79 to '85, and he used to come through and hang out. Speaking of Prince Lasha, I think the last time I saw Freddie was in Paris.

Odean Pope Prince Lasha and I were in Paris for about a week to hang out and we went to the Selmer factory to pick out some instruments. They gave me five instruments and they gave Prince five. It just happened Freddie was in Paris that week playing the New Morning. We went past the club that night and after the performance, Freddie insisted we go past his penthouse. We had to pull away from him, he didn't want us to leave. He had an early flight that morning. Freddie's another one, he's always treated me like I was his brother. When we got this date, I called him up and asked him if he would consider, and he said he'd be delighted.

AAJ: The Saxophone Choir has been around in one form or another since 1977?

OP: That's about right. I've never stopped. We didn't get a lot of work, but I always rehearse with it and kept it going.

AAJ: And you write all the arrangements?

OP: All except for one or two, they're my original arrangements.

AAJ: What did the band say when you handed them the "Prince Lasha" charts? That's an intense piece.

OP: I've got a lot of real difficult complex pieces. When we did this recording, even before we did the recording, I used to rehearse at least once or twice a week just with the horns, not the rhythm section. Because when you rehearse with the rhythm section, sometimes the horn players be sitting up there not really playing the music. But when you take the rhythm section and the piano away, and the drums away, you got all of the sheets off everybody. Everybody's right out front, you can hear what's going on. I've been doing that for many years.

When I got the deal to do the recording with Half Note/Blue Note, I rehearsed for about ten weeks. The first six weeks was nothing but the horn players. I got the best horn players available, some of them had been with the Choir for a long time, and I got some of my students who had been with the Choir about six years. A couple of my students I started teaching in 1997 and they made such tremendous progress, so Elliot Levin, Terrence Brown, Terry Lawson, also Seth Meicht, four students. We rehearsed for six weeks straight before I brought the rhythm section in, and I must say they really got those parts together.

AAJ: You said at one point you wanted the Choir to sound like one instrument.

OP: And they did it, they captured it, they got it. In fact, that was one of the few times they really captured the idea and the concept that I have been preaching to them for many years. And I think, in essence, they were so up from getting the recording date, they knew Michael Brecker, James Carter, and Joe Lovano were going to be on the date.

We were working round the clock. I would bring them over my house in the basement, sometimes we'd go to the studio and rehearse. We had a real, real good relationship during that ten weeks rehearsal. Sometimes I would get maybe two people and rehearse, sometimes I'd get the whole ensemble. Maybe we'd get George Burton the pianist and bring him over, maybe get Tyrone Brown the bassist. It was a combination of a lot of different ways that I got this together, because I was really trying to pinpoint all the little details and everything worked out. I think they worked it out really great.

AAJ: How'd you get Joe Lovano, James Carter, and Michael Brecker to record with the Saxophone Choir?

OP: I'll start with Michael, because he's from Philadelphia. Michael was going to the Berklee College of Music. I had a group called Catalyst. We did four albums during that period. Michael had all four of those albums under his arm going back and forth to school. He knew about my history. He came back to Philly eight or nine years ago and we had lunch with Byard Lancaster. I told him I'd like to have him at some point to be a guest soloist with the Saxophone Choir. He's so humble. I guess I could talk all night and not really say the words that do him, because he's one special nice person, in addition to being able to play that horn like he does. He said he knew the Saxophone Choir and would do it when he could schedule it.

In the early eighties I was working with Max, and did the first Saxophone Choir record in 1985 and was doing an interview at the Columbia Broadcasting Station in NY. When I came out of the studio, this guy was sitting out on the bench. He said, "You don't know me, but I'm Joe Lovano, and I really, really like your music, and I'm doing an interview behind you." Maybe eight or nine years later, Joe Lovano is a very big superstar. So, I asked him and he said yes.

James Carter said he'd known about the Saxophone Choir since 1985. He heard the first album. We were in Warsaw together; in fact I met James about ten years ago. He came to Philadelphia, I met him then. He played so many instruments that night. He was almost like a one man show. I guess there had to be three thousand people there and he really tore it up. I saw him at the Warsaw Jazz Festival, he had his quartet, I had my trio. Also, Sam Rivers' Quartet, nice, nice festival. The next morning we had breakfast, I asked him also.

All three of them, I just couldn't believe they were so willing to be a part of the Saxophone Choir. I've never played with three musicians who played their butts off on the date, and were so humble. Sometimes you get musicians that come on the gig and they're hard to get along with, they have attitudes. None of them had any kinds of attitude, and that's why the music came out like that.

Odean PopeAAJ: How did you originally connect with Max Roach?

OP: The first time I met Max was through a pianist named Hassan Ib Ali. Max recorded Hassan back around '65. I had been following Max for many years. I knew Sonny Rollins when he was playing with Max. In fact, when Sonny would come into town I would go past Sonny's hotel room and he would give me just so much valuable information, a very special person also. Then, when Hassan recorded with Max, Max got Hassan a recording date. It was never released. It was for Atlantic, with Art Davis on bass, Hassan on keyboards, I was on tenor. Max met me at that time, and then later he came to town and played a club called the Peps. One of the famous jazz clubs in Philadelphia, not there anymore.

The two famous jazz clubs in Philly at that time were the Peps and the Showboat, and Max and Clifford Brown, and Kenny Dorham, and Sonny Rollins, they used to come to town all the time. So, this particular Saturday Hassan called me up and said, "You know, Max is in town and I think you're ready, you should come on down. Max invited me down and I think you should come down, I want you to play with me." So, I went down with Hassan. The place was packed. Hassan convinced me to get on the bandstand with Max.

Immediately, when we got on the bandstand, Max kicked off the fastest most complex piece you could ever think of. The tempo was just so fast, man. I really, really struggled through it. Afterwards, Max came to me and said, "You know, you've got something. You're young and you've got a lot of energy. I like what you're doing, so why don't you give me your number and maybe in about a year or so when you continue to practice and study, I'd like to give you a shot to play with the group." I was so excited, I went back home and practiced, practiced, practiced, practiced, practiced, practiced, practiced.

What happened, Jimmy Merritt was playing with Max in 1967. At that time, Stanley Cowell was in the group, Charles Tolliver, Max and Jimmy Merritt. I think Billy Harper had just left the group. Max asked Jimmy about me, asked him how I was doing. I had playing with Jimmy's group. Jimmy had a group called the Forerunners and I was also playing with that group. So, he invited me up to New York to his place and he auditioned me.

There were a whole lot of people he was auditioning. I was like really scared to death. Finally, he picked me to go with the group. He said, "Look, we're getting ready to go to Europe and we have twelve compositions we have to memorize within two weeks. With the quartet I don't want any music on the bandstand." So, I used to take the train every day early in the morning to go up to his place, and I rehearsed with the group for two weeks, and I memorized the music. I worked with him for about a year at that time. During that time, there wasn't a lot of work. That's when there was a major transition with hip hop and whatcha call it, that other kind of music really took over. So, there wasn't a lot of work, and Max started doing other things, so I said I was going to go back home and study for another few more years and really start writing. That's when I started writing for the Saxophone Choir.

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