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George Garzone: Sax In The City


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When George Garzone is on the bandstand, everyone becomes a better player. He's THAT good.
—Peter Erskine
George Garzone is not the mayor of the city of Boston. If he was appointed to a position it would more likely be king. He is, at the very least, the toast of the town. This isn't news. King George has reigned with a firm grasp of his mighty tenor saxophone for close to half a century now. Although not as much of a household name outside of Boston, Garzone is nonetheless revered by jazz enthusiasts around the globe. Perhaps even more importantly, within his fellow musician's brethren, there are a handful, if that many, tenors that are in his league.

A graduate of the Berklee School of Music, Garzone has traveled the world playing with the best artists on the planet. He has an impressive discography of some of the best tenor playing with jazz ensembles that you would ever want to hear. He, however, eschewed fame and instead made both Boston and Berklee his home. There is a term for a badass saxophonist that really brings it. That would be a monster. Within this euphemism, Garzone is King Kong. Few can play John Coltrane's music with such verve. I don't believe that anyone has dissected, analyzed, and understands Coltrane's music with the broad scope and finite level of Garzone.

I had the pleasure of a most interesting and enjoyable dialogue recently with Garzone. Yes, we talked about Coltrane and Berklee. However, we also talked about a great many other things. Somehow, we managed to get Lester Young and Tom Jones into the same conversation. New music, classic music, and much in between were reminisced. And we had a few good laughs along the way. If you are a fan of Garzone, consider this a must read. If not, you very well may be after hearing from a man that represents the heart, passion, and all the goodness of jazz.

All About Jazz: Okay George, I'm going to jump right back to 1999. Specifically, the NAMM Show at the Anaheim Convention Center. Does that ring any bells?

George Garzone: Was I there with Pete (Peter Erskine)?

AAJ: Yes, you were.

GG: Were you there?

AAJ: I was not, but I believe it was your one and only performance ever with the Yellowjackets (whose line up at the time was Jimmy Haslip, Russell Ferrante, Bob Mintzer, and Erskine. The latter having just replaced drummer Will Kennedy).

GG: Exactly right.

AAJ: Now how did that come about?

GG: I had done this record with Mike Mainieri in Los Angeles and I was doing some other work with Pete. Mintzer, their regular saxophonist, was unable to make it to the NAMM show. So, they asked me if I would like to sit in. I said sure and those cats were great to hang out and play with.

AAJ: It was Haslip, a founding member of The Yellowjackets, that shared this with me. So, the story goes, you played four songs and the crowd was going nuts. You had only rehearsed four songs with them and didn't really have an encore. Haslip gives you credit for what happened next.

GG: Yeah, yeah. I suggested "Impressions." They all said great and we went back on stage and played it. Those cats played it real well, too.

AAJ: Haslip said that with "Impressions" you were now really in your wheelhouse playing Coltrane and played the shit out of it with a ten to twelve minute version that left the crowd in a frenzy!

GG: It was fun, yeah. There was no mamby pamby messin' around. It was just bam, and right into it. There is a different feel with east coast cats than west coast. I gotta say that us cats sometimes think the west coast approach can be a bit conservative at times. But not these cats, the Yellowjackets are the real deal. Then I played with Dave Binney in a saxophone quartet. Here I always thought that Binney was this straight-ahead player. He got out there and went crazy! He was playing SO free. Oh man, was he playing. Then I have stayed in touch and continued to work with guys, especially Pete. Including last year's 3 Nights in LA (Fuzzy Music, 2019) live record that also included Alan Pasqua and Darek Oles.

AAJ: Yes. A sensational record. In fact, a record that, as you know, I touted in my review as one the best live jazz records I have ever heard. I have spoken to Erskine, Pasqua, and Oles individually about the record. Very interested to hear your comments on it.

GG: That's my feeling too, Jim. It's the best record I ever did in my life. But we didn't even get a sniff at the Grammys. That was disappointing.

AAJ: I'm sure it was. It was also bullshit.

GG: Yeah, Pete was pretty sad about that. It apparently was way over their head.

AAJ: That's the only thing I can think of. I thought it would clearly win a Grammy. The fact that it, as you said, didn't even get a sniff, is mind boggling. The Grammy committee either didn't hear it, or they didn't "hear" it. But anyway, let's talk about what makes this record so remarkable.

GG: It has a lot to do with the formation of this group, the way they play, and how they feel about music. Pete, of course, with his metronomically perfect time, which has always been a tie in for him and I. I base a lot of what I do off of the harmonics, but also a lot off of the time. The time is really about seventy-five percent of it. The reason that band sounds so good is that is because it is time orientated.

AAJ: I felt privileged to get out to one of your live shows at Sam First in Los Angeles (where the record was recorded). The sound was just phenomenal and being such a small club, the proximity was amazing. I mean one can talk about sight lines, but I was like maybe a foot away from you! It was the best of everything a live jazz performance could possibly be. You like the club, Sam First?

GG: Yeah, it was great. The sound engineer was great. Pete really had it all put together. It all came together quickly. I was talking to Pete about his record label and asked about playing on it. Then just like that we were doing these shows and the live record. It was unbelievable. It was a no brainer. We didn't rehearse or nothing, but when we started playing it just took off, you know?

AAJ: For sure. Erskine told me that there were no rehearsals and never a playlist. That you would just call out a tune and go for it. It gave the shows such a spontaneous feel.

GG: Pete is very organized and has a lot of trust in me. He gave me a lot of leeway to trust the way that I feel and trust the direction I wanted to go in. I think, like you said, people get off on that. No playlists, just call that shit out and play it.

AAJ: Yeah, I sure did. I thought it was cool that you guys were able to do that. You were really in the moment and consequently we were too. Sitting in the catbird's seat, I was positioned to catch all the improvisation, and there was plenty being bopped around. That trust thing you are talking about obviously comes into play with Pasqua and Oles as well. The rhythm section chemistry between Erskine and Oles calls for a lot of trust. They have both told me how important that is, and that they complete each other's sentences.

GG: Well, yeah, you know they are well established. That's Peter's trio and they have played a whole lot together. Alan has come back to Berklee to do some shows and it surprises when someone says, "Hey, can this guy actually hang with the stuff you are playing?" I say, "Are you fuckin' kidding me, of course he can. He can really unleash his wrath." Alan's a real east coaster, even though he lives in L.A. now.

AAJ: Well, Pasqua played with Tony Williams Lifetime and Allan Holdsworth, so he can clearly hang with the best musicians in the world.

GG: Yeah, I was so into that Tony Williams record back then.

AAJ: Believe It{Columbia, 1975), yeah. Incredible record. A real game changer.

GG: That's the one. I gotta get me another copy of that.

AAJ: It never gets old, I can tell you that.

GG: The good shit never gets old. Listening to old Herbie Hancock records and shit like that. It's still terrific.

AAJ: All the old Miles Davis stuff and John Coltrane and so much more, it will live on forever.

GG: The good shit never dies. It gets better with age, like a fine wine. The longer you let it sit, the better it gets.

AAJ: I think that's a fair analogy. I like discovering new old music. As in hearing something from 1952 that I have never heard before, that is just incredible. To me, it's a new record. It's just as new as if it was recorded last week. If I've never heard it before, then as far as I am concerned it is, for me or whoever the listener is, a brand-new record.

GG: Well you are a connoisseur of jazz. People say shit about listening to something from fifty years ago. The drummer and co-founder, Bob Gullotti, of our band The Fringe, passed away just last month (February). We have been playing together as The Fringe for nearly fifty years. There is some great shit there from way back. I mean, I didn't realize what a mother-fuckin' great group I've been in (said with a hearty laugh).

AAJ: Let's talk about The Fringe. A band that was freely expressive and consistently ahead of its time. How did it get started and manage to stay together all these years?

GG: I met Bob Gullotti at Berklee. I got a call to play a gig in a Top 40 band with Gullotti and we got to talking. He knew a bassist named Rich Appleman. We got together and started playing and just never stopped (Appleman left the band in 1985 and was replaced by John Lockwood). We all lived in Boston, so we just continued to play after graduating from Berklee. About a month ago our lives were changed. It's something we talked about, in the past, in the event that it happened. It's a real drag.

AAJ: My condolences on your longtime friend Bob Gullotti. For people that aren't familiar with The Fringe, tell us about what The Fringe is about musically. Obviously playing jazz, but more specifically than that.

GG: We were always very free. Started out in 1972 with playing the really free shit like Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman. We gravitated to that point, to that type of sound. It's just something that happened. It was never a plan like "okay let's do this." It just happened. Bob was really more knowledgeable than I was about different styles of music, and he really wanted to play free.

AAJ: How much does playing so much free jazz affect your note choices and overall style of play even when you aren't playing free jazz? Such as with 3 Nights in LA or many other recordings you have made. Not that there isn't a ton of freedom and improvisation on 3 Nights in LA, but I believe you know what I mean.

GG: Yes, I do, and yes it does have an effect. That's actually a really intelligent question. I have focused on playing one night of free jazz a week (with The Fringe) and have worked at mixing in a more conventional style the other six nights a week. It took a very long time to find the right balance between the two.

AAJ: Even with that balance, it gives you an improvisational edge that you bring to the table, er bandstand, that can drive the sound in some cool directions it wouldn't otherwise go.

GG: That's what improvisation is all about as far as I am concerned. Be willing to take a chance. People might like it, they might not. But you are just going for it. You are formulating as you go along and pushing the limits.

AAJ: Yeah, one of the best things about jazz is that the same song sounds different every night. Erskine told me that the original concept on 3 Nights in LA was to pick the best tracks from the three nights for one record or CD. But after you listened to it all, you chose to put out three discs that captured all of it. You did play mostly different songs every night, but even the ones you played over were so different it would have been difficult to choose one take over another. Personally, I think it was a great call to include it all in the package.

GG: You hit it right on the head. Like you said, they are all killer tracks. I'm glad too, that Peter decided to put it all out there.

AAJ: We started this conversation talking about 1999. Going back a bit further, is it true that you got your first big break being part of Tom Jones touring band? That had to be back, maybe in the early 1970's?

GG: Actually, before that, I got my first gig playing behind exotic dancers. If you know what I mean by "exotic" dancers (laughing).

AAJ: Yes, I think I so. I'm visualizing that now as a matter of fact (laughing).

GG: My mother was like, "What the hell are you doing?" "What are you talking about?"

AAJ: (laughing) I can only imagine.

GG: "Four years at Berklee, you get a diploma, and you're playing behind these..." Oh my gosh, she was not happy. She was flipping out because I was going down there like six nights a week. I was getting thirty bucks a night.

AAJ: That was pretty decent money back then.

GG: Right. Six months later I got the call to join Tom Jones and now it was a whole different tune. We were based in Las Vegas. So, a whole new experience for me. I learned a lot.

AAJ: Your mom had to be happy. Now you were a professional musician. No more exotic dancers and working for a very big-name star. Tom Jones was huge back then.

GG: Yeah, well we used to watch him on his television show. Do you remember This Is Tom Jones?

AAJ: Oh, you bet. My family all watched that too.

GG: So, I come home to Boston after that and we put together The Fringe. We go ape-shit playing free and put together our first record. We're going bananas, excited about it. I take it home and say, "Mom, listen to our first record," and play it, and we were right back to, "I put you through four years of Berklee, and this is what you sound like." She didn't get it.

AAJ: Yeah, I was just going to say that she clearly didn't get it. To be fair, most people of that generation didn't get it. My parents certainly wouldn't have. Most of our parents had trouble with The Beatles, and they were highly melodical and easy to listen to. No way they were going to get free jazz.

GG: I came from a family of musicians and they didn't get it. Nobody did. I was the only one that pursued music as a career though.

AAJ: But just about everybody in your family played? Your dad? Your Mom?

GG: Actually, no it was my uncles. I came from an Italiano family. Uncle Rocco, Uncle Joe, my cousin Sal, my cousin Richie, my uncle Frank and a couple of others. They all played like club dates, wedding gigs, and things like that. I first started studying with my Uncle Rocco in the back of this pizza place. He had a connection at Berklee and was able to get me in when I was still in high school.

AAJ: You couldn't possibly have predicted that you would have spent the past half century on the Berklee campus either as a student or a teacher. How did that come about?

GG: When I got back from the gig with Tom Jones, I had a decision to make. Either to play, to teach, or do both. I didn't really want to teach. I wanted to play. But I had just gotten married and I realized that I needed something stable. I knew that we would have kids and I just had to have a steady stable income. I started teaching in 1975 and I am still there forty-five years later. From the beginning then, money from gigs was extra, not what we were relying on. I had been at Berklee since 1968 and I visualized firsthand the empire that was being built there. I could just see the vision that they had and were building upon. It seemed to make a lot of sense to stick around and be a part of that. I've never regretted that decision. Berklee has a wonderful atmosphere to study in, and has grown exponentially. Back when I started, there was no such thing as online. Now Berklee is the leader in online education, and staying in touch with our students through WebEx and Zoom video conferencing.

AAJ: At one time you taught at some other colleges and music schools as well.

GG: There was a seventeen-year period from about 1993-2009 that I was bouncing back and forth from Boston to New York. I was teaching at NYU and the New England Conservatory. I was just making some extra dough-re-mi, but by 2009 it was time to cool it, and just be full time at Berklee.

AAJ: You must then find sharing your knowledge and passion for music very rewarding. You have had several students that have gone on to greatness in the jazz world. Maybe you could talk about a couple of those major successes.

GG: Well, there have been many. I hate to start mentioning names and then leave someone out. So, I will mention Branford Marsalis and Joshua Redman. But I would rather take the opportunity to get into a couple of up and comers. With you being in California, Jim, and for all you west coast folks, I got a couple of names for you. Check out Daniel Rotem and Anthony Fung. They both play out at The Blue Whale (a jazz club in Los Angeles). Oh man, those two young cats are something special. Anybody gets a chance, trust me, you want to hear them play.

AAJ: Thanks for the heads up. I look forward to hearing them play. Looking forward to having live music again! Another aspect of your teaching involves Coltrane. Many have been influenced by Trane, but few have studied it, grasped it, and have been able to get so deeply inside of it as you. Your triadic chromatic approach is directly linked to Coltrane, correct?

GG: Yes, basically you take "Giant Steps" forward.

AAJ: Could you explain a bit about your triadic chromatic approach?

GG: Everybody thinks it is this sophisticated Mary Had a Little Lamb on acid shit. Actually, when you hear it, it is. What I did was, I took the four triads with the understanding that all triads are created equal. It's a hybrid thing that's bebop upside down.

AAJ: Oh, now I like that phrase. From what I've gathered, it has a lot to do with not repeating the same notes, right?

GG: Correct. When you get a chance Google the word randomnivity. I developed that word. Somebody said that's not a word. Well, it is now!

AAJ: Okay now that's pretty damn cool. And, sure enough, there it is in a quick Google search. I'll read that article later.

AAJ: Getting back to The Fringe. Clearly many people did "get it," and continue to do so. You have played all over the place over the years and sold a bunch of records. Your following in Boston is still huge. Up until Gullotti's recent death, I believe you were still playing at a club every Monday night.

GG: Yes, we started playing clubs in about 1976 or 1977. We got to the point where we were very well-known in Boston. A few different clubs, but we have now been at the same club since 2001. We continued for about five shows with just the two of us, no drummer, before the recent shut down. We have had the likes of Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman, and Kenny Werner asking if they can come down and sit in with us.

AAJ: Like you're going to say no to Dave Liebman! Or any of those guys. So theoretically, when we get past the current pandemic and you are able to play again, The Fringe will continue on in some form?

GG: Yes. The Fringe is John Lockwood, the bassist (who also teaches at Berklee) and myself. Of course, we are going to keep going. I've had a lot people ask me that, and they are all quite happy when I tell them that. As far as the drummer situation, you just can't fill his shoes. There are some great drummers out there. But it's not that simple. I want to just let it be for a minute and go from there.

AAJ: That seems to make sense. I also admire that it is a sign of respect for your longtime friend and band mate. Right now, no one is going to measure up. In time the right drummer will likely find you, rather than the other way around.

GG: Yeah, we will just see how that plays out. We just can't predict what the future has in store for us. I have had people call me asking what I was going to do like it was the Boston fucking Symphony or something. There is a lot involved beyond the playing. It's a psychological thing. Cats allege they play free, but how many really play free? Are they really going to be the right fit?

AAJ: Yeah, most guys are still going to need some kind of guideline.

GG: Exactly. You know, I didn't even really realize how much Bob protected me from the outside world of musicians. So, anyways, for now we are a duo, and who knows now when the next gig is even going to be.

AAJ: In addition to an impressive discography as a leader, you have also played as a guest on several other records. Far too many to mention, really. However, I will bring up one that certainly got my attention. That being a Tom Kennedy record titled Just Play! (Capri, 2013). Kennedy told me that the concept was indeed to "just play," as in more like a live performance even though it was a studio record. With your improvisational skills, it seemed to be a record that suited you well. It came across that you were all having a great time playing on that record.

GG: You know, a student of mine brought that record up just the other day. He was talking about my playing on the song "Ceora." That was a fun record to make. Tom had a lot of great cats on that record with Dave Weckl, Renee Rosnes, and a bunch of others.

AAJ: Yeah, Mike Stern and Lee Ritenour as well. It has been my favorite Tom Kennedy record. Although, he just released a new record that is upbeat and exceptional.

GG: Did he? That's great to hear.

AAJ: Yeah, his new record is called Stories (Self-produced, 2020). He's got Weckl and Jay Oliver and a host of talented guests, including Randy Brecker, Bill Evans, Ada Rovatti, and Stern.

GG: I love Tom. He's a really good cat.

AAJ: Indeed, he is. I will gladly second that.

AAJ: You have worked with many of the greats, some of whom have already been mentioned. There is one name that I would be remiss not to mention. You have done a substantial amount of work with Lovano. You two go back to your college days, right? People might be most familiar with your work with the Lovano Nonet.

GG: Yeah, I met Joe at Berklee when we were both students. We hit it off right away. Sometimes there is just a vibe thing. Joe is just such an amicable kind of guy. We became very good friends right away and we still are very much so now. Joe has a great feel for music and for life. He just gets what's going on. When his career exploded, he wanted me to be in on it. Actually, he and Gullotti are cousins from Sicily.

AAJ: Wow, never would have made that connection.

GG: Yeah, there are a lot of connections with people. You're familiar with Frank Tiberi, right?

AAJ: Sure, of Woody Herman fame. He is still around playing, isn't he? Like in his nineties?

GG: There you go, man. He lives like fifteen minutes from me. He has for like thirty years now. We go out all the time. We go to sports bars and drink vino, play some scratchers, and hang out. He is one of the reasons why I play the way I do, because his style is so infectious. I feel very fortunate in my life to have met people like Frank and Lovano and Erskine. Guys that just really have something special going on.

AAJ: Now does Tiberi still play much?

GG: Oh my God, James, let me tell you. Once in a while I take him into the city, and he plays fucking great. Nothing has changed. Sometimes he will say I'm done. I will tell him no way. We will go have a couple of Courvoisiers, and I get his ass up there. Then I can't get him off the fucking bandstand (laughing).

AAJ: (laughing) Once he's up there he starts getting a feel...

GG: Right, exactly. He is something else. Have you heard his record Tiberian Mode (NY Jam Records, 1999)? Lovano and I both play on that with him.

AAJ: You know. I don't think I have. I may have heard a couple of tracks from it. But no, I don't have it in my collection.

GG: Yeah, there were only so many copies printed. You would love it. I'll get you a copy from Frank. Or I will get you in touch with Frank. He would get a kick out of it if a cat like you, that really gets it, would review it.

AAJ: Thank you very much. It would be my pleasure. I appreciate your kind words, as well. Multiple sax records don't seem to be as in vogue as they once were. I mean, going back to Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt, Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, Eddie Davis (better known as Lockjaw) and Johnny Griffin, just to mention a few. Bringing us to the present, you just put out a new record called The Ripple (Rupe Media, 2020) with fellow tenor saxophonist Jeff Rupert. What's the story on this one?

GG: Jeff Rupert is a really nice little player that sounds a lot like Stan Getz. I've known him for a while now. He asked me to come down to Orlando, Florida where he teaches and do a few school clinics and like that. Then to work on a record together. So, I went down there, and everything was just beautiful. I mean, he had it all set up, had some great tunes arranged, it was just great. Now The Ripple is doing great and climbing the charts.

AAJ: That's awesome. What is the ripple referring to in this case? Does it have anything to do with Lester Young or am I fishing in the wrong pond?

GG: Actually, yes Jim. Jeff circles around, and keys in, on cats like Lester, Coleman Hawkins, and Ben Webster. The older players with the really big sound. It's a very truthful album. The guys (pianist Richard Drexler, drummer Marty Morell, and bassist Jeremy Allen) on it played great. Very patient. Nice grooves.

AAJ: Steve Gadd did a record just a few years back when he turned seventy called 70 Strong (BFM Jazz, 2015). You will turn seventy before the end of the year. Based on the energy level and delightfully nuanced expressionism I saw and heard live about six months ago, it would seem that you are still feeling strong as well. Is that the case?

GG: Yeah, you know Jim, I live out in the country, about thirty miles from Boston. There are not too many people around. I exercise every day. I keep limber and stretch. I feel really good. I train with Zen masters. I've been doing that for nearly forty years now. You know, seventy is the new sixty. If you take care of yourself, and keep your shit together, you can feel great and keep going.

AAJ: Well it's time for me to let you do just that.

GG: Yes, as a matter of fact it's just about time for me to do some instructing on Skype.

AAJ: It's been very cool having the opportunity to speak with you. I really enjoyed it, George. Thank you very much for taking the time this afternoon.

GG: It's cool Jim. Nice talking to you too. You're a good cat. Be safe now. Photo credit: George Garzone website.

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