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Roger Rosenberg: Baritone Madness


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It was a late morning in a junior high school located in Long Beach, New York when a lonely, rarely used baritone saxophone chose an adolescent student named Roger Rosenberg as its sole and rightful owner. Moved by his music teachers' offer that whoever was willing to learn the instrument could own it, the youthful student approached the large, foreboding hunk of brass, got behind it and mysteriously felt quite comfortable and at home with it. "I jumped on the offer, and it just clicked! There was something about that instrument that was just meant for me. All I know is that I was capable and that I felt natural about it!" says Rosenberg.

That initial meeting and its aftermath have ushered Roger Rosenberg into concert venues and recording studios worldwide with artist credits ranging from Tito Puente, Buddy Rich, Mongo Santamaria, and Ray Barretto to Chet Baker, Miles Davis, John Lennon and Steely Dan.

Born in New York City in 1951, Mr. Rosenbergs' first home was on Manhattans' upper west side. Home to a disproportionate number of Jazz musicians, the neighborhood practically ordained Rosenberg, from birth, to hear the cry of the horn and the lure of the late night club. It was at a tender age, in the mid sixties, that he attended a music summer camp outside of New Hope, Pennsylvania, baritone sax in tow. As fate would have it, the director was saxophonist Phil Woods, and the young student was seated next to fellow classmates that would one day make their mark.

"For three summers I had a scholarship to go to this camp and really it was the defining experience of my life! That's when I became friends with [fellow students] Michael Brecker and Richie Cole—he was on alto sax. People like Elvin Jones would come up and speak, Jerome Richardson, Steve Marcus, he had all these great musicians come up and I began improving as a player. At that point it was clear, after that first summer I knew I wanted to be a musician, I was 13 or 14 years old.," adds Rosenberg.

Feeling socially awkward, as many teenagers do, the saxophonist began to practice incessantly and melded with his instrument while developing a new personal identity along the way. Buoyed by the feeling that he now belonged in the music community and encouraged by the exposure to the music of John Coltrane, Rosenberg delved deeply into his study of music eventually deciding on a year of studies at Indiana University and then onto Bostons' elite musical program.

"Joe Allard and Jackie Bayard were teaching at the New England Conservatory, I spoke to them and they arranged for me to meet Gunther Schuller [President], I got on a train with my suitcase and my horn... went into his office ...played a Coltrane tune...he brought me in to meet the head of the Jazz department and he gave me a scholarship to go to the school," says Rosenberg.

Upon his return to New York City, a foreshadowing of things to come was awaiting him on the corner of 125th street and Broadway in Harlem. It was a dank club that was in his words, "semi-Latin," paid $25 a night to play in, and would eventually lead to stints with some of New Yorks' great Latin players. After performing briefly with conguero Luis Bauza, a friend informed him that Tito Puente needed a baritone man, yet, things were clearly not always jets, 4-star hotels and touring with Rock stars. Rosenberg; "I went and sat in with Tito Puente at a place called the Pan American Inn somewhere in Queens and got the job. We were making $25 a night on weekdays and $40 a night on weekends playing 2 gigs a night. It was really from that point on that I stopped taking money from my father, and that was a great feeling!"

Sitting aloft one of midtown Manhattans' high-rises, the casually attired saxophonist nestles into his couch and is quickly surrounded by his cadre of aging cats. Leaning forward and stroking one of his feline acquaintances, he reminisces about the time he spent with drummer Buddy Richs' big band and his desire to get back into a smaller unit where he could more readily develop his soloing. Hearing of an opening in Mongo Santamarias' band, Mr. Rosenberg makes a call and is enlisted in Mongos' army of urbane guerrillas. Constant touring and an album, Sofrito (Fania 1976), ensued before a second enterprise, the Grammy award winning, Amanacer (Fania) followed. In keeping with the clave rhythm, the saxophonist next works with Ray Baretto which eventually leads to a Joe Sample produced crossover effort entitled, "The Eye of the Beholder" before working with Eddie Palmieri and later with his own Latin-Jazz ensemble, Jasmine, whose album received a good amount of airplay.

The late seventies found Mr. Rosenberg holding court in cathedrals of the night, like Strykers' on New Yorks' upper west side, where he played backup with fallen angel Chet Baker. There in an elongated, narrow and darkened room, Chet conducted what some recall as a late night music laboratory where younger players could come and learn from the once "Gabriel"-like trumpeter. Sitting in the rear of the bar with his cob-webbed boots, his weapon of choice (his trumpet), and his wild-west demeanor, Baker did not inspire confidence among his musicians when it came to matters of finance.

Rosenberg; "He was quiet, very quiet and we didn't talk about music much...I was with him for a couple of years and toured the country, played the Village Vanguard with him a bunch of times... Chet was going to Europe and I was kind of nervous at that time, I was kind of uncomfortable with the idea of being in Europe for seven weeks, away from my wife, and not feeling sure ...I didn't want to go and not be sure I'd get paid enough money to get back!."

His playing with Chet did produce a live album, Chet Baker Sings, Plays-Live at the Keystone Korner (High Note records 2003), in which Baker records with the aforementioned band from "Stryker'" and Rosenberg lays down some impressive playing on baritone and some very ethereal and haunting soprano work on pieces like "Broken Wing."

In the early eighties, weary of the road and desiring to be closer to home, his wife and his new-born baby boy, the saxophonist decided to expand his sound on soprano, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon and tenor, in addition to studying composition, all in an effort to land more work both in studios and on Broadway. At this time, his most successful effort and the one he's most proud of was, The Lena Horne Show.

Fellow musicians and word of mouth brought him studio work on John Lennons' Double Fantasy (Capital 1980) and Elvis Costellos' North (Deutsch Grammophon 2003) along with commercial sessions of every stripe. It was through tenor great Lou Marini however that the saxophonist would receive a fruitful and treasured introduction to Steely Dans' Donald Fagen who at the time was assembling musicians for his solo effort, Kamarkiriad (Reprise 1993). Produced by fellow Steely Dan founder Walter Becker, this project created friendships that would eventually lead Rosenberg to prized work, both in the studio and on the road, with the duos progressive, jazz based band.

After years of meandering in and out of his true passion for Jazz, Mr. Rosenberg decided it was high time for a serious solo Jazz effort and released his first CD, Hang Time (Jazz Key Music 2001). A mix of originals and standards, Hang Time is an exuberant display of stellar composition and playing from his Bop-like odes to Coltrane, "Trane Dance," to his unique approach to classics such as "Autumn in New York."

Another solo effort, Baritonality (Sunnyside 2009), was produced by Walter Becker and captured by engineer extraordinaire James Farber. Recorded during a couple of hard driving marathon sessions, the cd further showcases Rosenberg's writing and playing ensuring the deeper exposure the horn man rightfully deserves.

Mr. Becker relates his first impressions of the saxophonist, several years ago, during a Steely Dan recording session; "We were rehearsing and during a pause Roger started playing on his own, I thought, 'wow, this guy can really play.'" And that's exactly what he has been doing on the road for Steely Dans' past several tours including 2009s,' "Rent Party Tour.."

Back in his apartment, lights glowing in the city below, Rosenberg leads a reporter over to a glass framed, gold record awarded to Steely Dan—a recording he performed on. Standing before the record, his image clearly reflected, Rosenberg says; "They (Steely Dan) sent these to everyone who worked on the album, that's the way they do things, first class all the way!." And so it is with Roger Rosenberg.

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