Rick Mandyck: The Return From Now

Paul Rauch BY

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It was a cold Tuesday evening the last week of December. 2016 was mercifully coming to a close, this evening, a final chorus of a long blues blown soulfully, and mournfully into the night. I sat at the bar at Seattle's storied jazz spot, Tula's, in eager anticipation of the evening's performance of a quartet led by veteran bassist, Paul Gabrielson. Gabrielson had gathered a quartet of top tier, Seattle based musicians that evening, featuring pianist Bill Anschell, and drummer John Bishop. At that moment, the fourth member of this much anticipated quartet, Rick Mandyck, approached me, a joyous smile on his face illuminating the dark confines of this historic venue. "This feels strange," he said, his eyes panning the stage. "I heard tale that you're playing saxophone tonight," I remarked, alluding to his years absent from the scene playing both alto and tenor saxophone. " First sax gig in fourteen years," Mandyck replied. I was feeling extremely fortunate to be there, I knew something special, something magical was about to take place.

Throughout the eighties and nineties, Rick Mandyck was the most complete, and progressive saxophonist in Seattle, and to those closely associated with jazz music in that period, a true innovator of the instrument on a national scale. After switching to playing primarily tenor in the nineties, the Emerald City was blessed by the presence of three historic artisans of the tenor—Mandyck, Hadley Caliman, and Don Lanphere. Among the three, Mandyck's lyrical approach stood out, his live appearances much anticipated at clubs like the New Orleans, Jazz Alley, the Pioneer Banque, and in the very room where we took musical refuge that evening, Tula's, in the Belltown neighborhood. A series of illnesses, and a very serious hernia injury made playing saxophone extremely painful, necessitating that he give up the instrument, to set aside that which had given him the contentment of expression, of his ability to author and share his musical and spiritual insights to those of us willing to listen. And listen, we did. "It was unfortunate in most ways, but I think in a lot of ways, with guitar and later piano I got to learn a lot more about music. There's just all these vistas, chords, wow, two notes at the same time! Certainly after you've done something for that long, and you take it away, there's an emptiness, a missing space, but I decided to try to fill it with something like piano, which is my current thing. Just it's unlimited harmonic possibilities."

And so Mandyck's musical legacy continued as a guitarist, still directing his creative genius into what was, in reality, the instrument he began his musical journey with as a youngster. "Guitar was my first instrument. My Italian grandfather, Nick Conti, was a musician, and was a very big musical influence on me. He got me interested in music. When I was about five, I was bugging everybody for a guitar, there was a Hawaiian guitar in the attic, with a wide neck. He put a different nut on it so the strings were a little bit easier, but it was an incredibly hard instrument to play. But I loved it. They tried to discourage me, but it didn't work," he states with a chuckle. As a guitarist, Mandyck was impactful, continuing his musical relationship with Greg Keplinger, Thomas Marriott and others. But even as much as he was appreciated and respected as a musician on any chosen instrument, his departure as a saxophonist was impactful as well. Perhaps his unique talent was even more appreciated during the past fourteen years, as his legend as a pure saxophonist grew not as some sort of jazz tall tale, but as a statement of fact, of witness by those, as myself, who were there in the eighties as he molded his identity as an alto player, and his change in the nineties, to the tenor.

Six years into the new century, Mandyck began to appear at the New Orleans club as a pianist, sitting in on the Friday night sessions with trumpeter Thomas Marriott, bassist Phil Sparks and drummer Matt Jorgensen. Those of us who were aware of his musical legacy in the city, were amazed. The rumor was that he had spent the past six months learning the piano, sequestering himself sixteen hours a day behind the keyboard to do so. "Sixteen hours a day, no. Eight, yes," says Mandyck. "I got my keyboard in July, and that January I started a steady gig with Thomas Marriott, Phil Sparks and Matt Jorgensen, at the New Orleans Club. Every friday night, and the piano was so difficult to play, so dead. My first gig there, I lasted maybe two or three bars into my first solo, and my hands were in complete knots. Gay Anderson (proprietor of the New Orleans) was a very big supporter of me when I first started playing piano. She gave me the opportunity to do that. One of the other great things about the gig at the New Orleans was that every pianist I know came down and gave me a lesson. I mean everybody." Premier pianists such as Dawn Clement, Dave Peck, Eric Verlinde, Marc Seales, Ryan Burns, and Ron Weinstein would stop in to see Rick and always contribute to his evolution as a pianist. Travis Shook, from New York would stop in time to time.

It became very clear, that Mandyck possessed a special musical gift, including the ability to self educate and dedicate himself to whatever musical task was at hand. In speaking with him, and hearing his story of how this musical educational evolution has taken place, particularly in his early years, this was hardly anything new for him. But his illness, and injury were a different set of challenges, a bridge not yet crossed on this journey of music, of life. "I'm pretty much self taught, I attempted to go to music school when I was sixteen, and they wouldn't let me test out. My professor would say, 'OK, everybody except Rick.' I started studying music at the University of Arizona in Tuscon, I was young, I was able to get in and take night classes, but the bottom line was I was too young, I was not ready. I've pretty much been so stubborn about many things in life, but, I've been pretty much self taught."

Mandyck improved so rapidly on piano, it was startling. He began to drift into trio performances with old friend, drummer John Bishop, and either Jeff Johnson or Paul Gabrielson on bass. Essentially, he would gig anywhere there was a good piano, but his home stage slowly became Tula's, with appearances all over town. His playing became brilliant, yet Mandyck was largely now an unknown quantity, in a city where he had established a legendary musical legacy on saxophone. His musical and personal relationship with Bishop, Johnson, and Gabrielson remained what it had always been-a deep friendship based on love and creative energy. " Me and Paul Gabrielsen and John Bishop for the last three or four years, we've developed quite an understanding, and previous to that, me, John and Jeff Johnson," states Mandyck, a tone of respect and love in his voice. He is undeniably deeply appreciative of his time spent with these special voices on the Seattle scene. "Jeff Johnson has accomplished what we're all trying to do as musicians, finding your voice, finding your way of interpreting everything, and having it be you. That's what we're all trying to do," he states respectfully. This comment was very interesting to me, with Mandyck stating this as a pianist, where as a saxophonist, performing with these same musicians, he had established a reputation as a player who very much enjoyed the pianoless format, with just bass and drums providing the harmonic and rhythmic structure. "I think that most pianists and guitarists when they comp, even if they're trying to really listen to you, about what you're doing harmonically, they're going to put, in some way, their harmonic stamp on your soul. Certain pianists will not listen to you at all, and will almost try to bully you into doing things. When there's no chords, it's so wide open, it gives you the opportunity to create your own harmonic canvas. It also creates an opportunity for you to suck mightily, if you don't. It's a double edged sword. It's all out there," he says, and so this sort of sensitivity, of support, without harmonic constraint became a trait of his as a pianist as time wore on.

And so I sat in eager anticipation of the evening performance to come, to hear the beautiful intonation, the one of a kind lyricism that I had come to expect from him. I was emotional in the sense that I felt joy for him, for his reimmersion into the saxophone world, for his good fortune in life, and for the good fortune of everybody in that intimate venue that evening, to witness this marvelous music, and be a part of this wonderful story.

It was the beginning of another phase in Mandyck's eclectic journey, that somehow brought him to this city of broad ideas and interests. A journey that began in the upstate New York hamlet of Endicott NY, just a few hours north of New York City, and the most energized and prolific jazz scene in the world. "Actually I used to go to New York when I was a kid to get in trouble. I didn't really have a musical connection to New York City until the nineties," he says jokingly. After his time in Arizona, and a short time spent in the San Francisco bay area, he headed north to the Pacific Northwest, and the legendary and vastly underappreciated jazz scene in Seattle. "I came to visit a friend that I grew up with in New York, that lived in Magnolia in 1978. He told me, 'Richie I think you should play saxophone,' because I played flute at the time. He rented a saxophone for me, an alto, and that's what started the whole thing. I just started playing, playing on the streets." I smiled considering the notion of Mandyck playing on the streets, or more specifically, at Seattle's famed Pike Place Market. Street musicians are an integral part of the experience at the famed spot for both locals and tourists alike, a true part of the fabric of life surrounding the market culture for decades. To me, the thought of Mandyck honing his saxophone chops at the market made perfect sense, in a very Seattle sort of way.

I could hear Mandyck warming up in the back room at Tula's, the room now full almost to capacity. It was a busy week at the storied club, and I was counting my fourth consecutive night there, but irregardless of the fact that all the music that week at Tula's had been first rate, it could not match the anticipation and excitement I felt that evening. To many, this was just the first performance as a leader at the venue for the veteran bassist Gabrielson, something in itself to celebrate and look forward to. But as I took the stage, having the honor of introducing the band that evening, I knew I had to provide a narrative that would provide an advanced context for what was to take place on that very stage, on what was to be a very special night. I introduced the musicians one by one, and when I got to Mandyck, I informed the audience of Mandyck's return as a saxophonist. "To my left is a man you may have seen here at Tula's earlier this month as a pianist with his very fine trio," I began. "Truth be told however, Rick Mandyck is truly a historic musician in this city as a saxophonist, and tonight, he gives his first performance as a saxophonist in fourteen years." The crowd, to that point polite and attentive, clearly became more engaged. While most were not aware of his prowess or musical history, his story had become the storyline of the evening, as it should have been.

Mandyck didn't disappoint that evening, his solos still possessing the beautifully lyrical approach that we had all become accustomed to in the eighties and nineties. While many musicians have superior technique, and unlimited musical knowledge, they somehow lack the innate musical wisdom that can only be attained through life experience, and pure, natural genius. Listening to Mandyck, is indeed, like listening to the true masters of the form, which is exactly what he is, though not recognized as such on a national and international scale at present time. His solos have intent, direction, and undefined freedom from start to finish, like so few. " In general, some of the most memorable and moving jazz experiences that I've heard and witnessed, are ones that breathe," states Mandyck beautifully. "As a matter of fact, some of it, the Coltrane quartet was like everything was an arc, a perfect arc. Not only with a composition, but the whole concert. As a listener, the most exciting thing is for things to change, and morph, to start somewhere and to build and create expectation, and then the release. That to me is the most exciting thing about jazz, other music usually doesn't have that. That's what I try to do in music when I'm soloing."

Mandyck's return to the saxophone is on alto, a concession perhaps to his physical condition that still must be handled with kid gloves. Yet while he acknowledges as such, he does not see it as a concession at all. Indeed, his voice began as an altoist in the eighties, and then evolved into the deep throaty tenor voice many are more familiar with. " I think the alto was pretty much all in the eighties, and the nineties I was more influenced by tenor players, Coltrane, Dexter. Let me back up. When I was thirteen, one of my favorite albums was Anthenagin (Prestige 1973), a very very weird album by Art Blakey, with Blakey, Carter Jefferson, Cedar Walton and Cecil McBee. That was one of my favorite jazz albums, and after I started out on alto in the late seventies and early eighties I switched over to tenor for a while, and Carter Jefferson used to live in Seattle. I got to meet him, play with him, he kind of took me under his wing. He was a very big influence on me. Another person that I learned a lot from, was Bert Wilson, in Olympia. Bert Wilson was a paraplegic saxophonist, that had an amazing altissimo fingering system. The two students that he claimed were the only ones to listen to what he said were me and Len Pickett. And Denny Goodhew was bar none the baddest MF to walk this planet in the eighties. So I was self taught, but I was influenced mightily by people, like Denny and Carter. But then in the nineties I became more Coltrane influenced, Dexter influenced, Joe Henderson, and so it's all about the tenor. I was in chemotherapy between 2000-2003 for my liver, and when I came off of chemo I started playing alto again. I played it on two albums, Thomas Marriott's first record, Intermodulation (Origin Records, 2004) , and John Bishop's, Something If Not Nothing (Origin Records, 2004)."

Physically, there is no doubt, that along with the proper set up, the alto is the wise choice in his return, but his musical ties still draw from the tenor side of the saxophone abyss. That was plainly seen and heard upon his return that evening at Tula's. His musical choices as a soloist were beautifully reminiscent of his tenor past, while announcing to everyone in the room that while this was his first saxophone gig in fourteen years, he hasn't wandered anywhere, he is with us in a vividly present sense. Speaking of his alto/tenor duality he says, "As far as the difference between alto and tenor, now alto is little more forgiving as far as my physical ability to play. And even if I approach it exactly the same as my tenor playing, things are going to come out different, it's going to be fresh. Even though there has always been amazing masters of the alto saxophone that I admire, I'm not tied to them like I was to Coltrane, and the tenor players."

The performance that evening at Tula's became memorable in so many ways. Watching and hearing the return of Rick Mandyck as a saxophonist, to in some way absorb some of the storied past of the Seattle jazz scene, and at the same time come to the realization that the present scene is remarkable in itself, left me fulfilled in a very personal sense. Personal to the extent one feels when you see jazz music as important, as a deep and endless source of connection to our culture, that in these times, and that evening, seem to be challenged at a constant rate. Whether you had a personal connection to the individuals onstage, or not, the joy shining brightly on the faces of Bishop, Gabrielson, and Anschell was a beautiful, silent homage to their friend's legacy, and what might be down the road. While Bishop and Gabrielson were long time musical collaborators, this was Anschell's first opportunity to play with him. There could not have been a better combination of players to herald the return of one of the true treasures of Seattle jazz history, and illuminate what we may expect in the months to come.

The piano is still to be the major source of focus, with the saxophone slowly finding it's way into Mandyck's performances as a leader. Still, he finds it easier to communicate musically on saxophone in many ways. "I think so, because it doesn't have as may dimensions. For me, it's more difficult to do that on piano than saxophone. But I'm working on that," says Mandyck. Yet walking off the stage that night, he appeared energized, happy, exuding a joy that was equaled by that of the audience. I could only imagine his feeling that night, playing three sets, setting course into long, storied choruses on each composition, playing without any regard to musical compromise, or physical limitation. His beautiful tone floated through the room on angelic air, the audience completely absorbed with every note. "Very different. Again, I'm still in the process of shaping and forming my alto voice. It's kind of, Ok here I am, but who am I? But it felt very good. I think I have more fun now, it's not that I take it any less serious, I just don't take things so seriously."

While this story spins a beautiful tale of artistic triumph, and cultural pride, the final push of motivation to return to playing saxophone was provided to Mandyck by our old friend, economic crisis. Limited by just playing piano gigs around the city, Mandyck was making his living working full time as a cook. Then came some alarming news. "Quite honestly, I went to part time on my job and still had a lease obligation, and was spending 98 % of my money on rent. I was thinking, Oh my god, what am I going to do? What do I know how to do to make money?' And so there was that situation. The instrument I play is Thomas and David Marriott's uncle's instrument. And their uncle put this horn in his mother's closet in 1953, and in 2009 they took care of the house and estate and David Marriott, Jr. ended up with it. I'm good friends with Tom, and there was this need, and an opportunity to get this horn. It was very touch and go at first. The first couple of weeks were difficult. The problem I have always had with the saxophone is I have extreme hernia pain from blowing, so I have had to completely relearn how to breathe. I had some bad techniques and habits I'm trying to rectify to make sure I don't injure myself."

Rick Mandyck is a great musician, and a beautiful person as well. Those two qualities reflect on each other, embellish each other. His life has had triumphs and it surely has had challenges. While it is joyous to watch his evolution as a musician, it is equally wonderful to witness the evolution of his life. Recently, he married the love of his life, Donna. " She's been nothing but a bright beacon of light in my life, and she affects everything I do," he told me, asking I respect her privacy while writing this. Of course. But yes love, it has it's powers of illumination and passion, as does music. Whether from behind the piano, or with the saxophone, Rick Mandyck has not gone anywhere. His musical legacy continues to impact the creative impulse of this rapidly changing city, as a voice from the past that speaks clearly as a truly modern component of Seattle's culture. One thing is for sure. We're listening.

Photo Credit: Jim Levitt

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