He’s wowed critics and clubgoers, won fellowships and magazine polls. He’s recorded two CDs as a leader and has two more on the way.
But like so many jazz musicians before him, Philly-area tenor saxophonist and composer Ben Schachter has yet to land a contract with a major record label.
It hasn’t stopped him.
Told he should move to New York to break into jazz’s big leagues, Schachter, a Philadelphia native, stayed put. No bites from the major labels? Schachter formed his own label, Ben-Jam Records, and recorded two memorable albums, Fractals and Trio of Many, also the name of his band.
For Schachter, 39, the artistic struggle comes with the territory, geographic or otherwise.
“It’s harder to be based in any city other than New York if you want to have an international career,” Schachter says. “The consensus worldwide is if your return address isn’t New York, then you’re not in the big leagues, so to speak.
“To a certain extent I can understand why,” he adds. “Traditionally New York has been the center of jazz activity. But my family is from Philly, and I love living here. The quality of life is as important to one’s music-making as anything else. You have to be happy with your life in order to be creating.”
And create he has. Schachter’s first disc, a sextet session called Fractals, was described as “both experimental and accessible” by one critic. Trio of Many, Schachter’s next recording, was, an Inquirer critic wrote, “full of Monkish moments and sly asides. Schachter writes peppery tunes that meander and tap-dance on the subconscious before his searing saxophone takes over to blow down the house.” Schachter was also voted “Best Jazz Artist” and “Hottest Sax” in various Philadelphia CityPaper polls.
Not content to bask in critical raves, Schachter has just put the finishing touches on two new releases that should hit the stores in late summer. Inside Looking Out is the second disc by his Trio of Many, which also includes bassist Micah Jones and drummer Erik Johnson. And The Missing Beloved is a sextet recording that adds saxophonist Gary Bartz, guitarist Jef Lee Johnson and trumpeter Tim Hagans to the mix.
“This wasn’t supposed to be two albums,” Schachter says. “But we recorded so much music over a two-day period, and I liked most of it. Since one day was with the sextet and the other day was with the trio, it seemed logical to release them separately.”
Schachter describes Inside Looking Out as the most relaxed recording yet by his trio, which has played together for about four years. (The band has a standing gig at St. Jack’s on Chestnut Street in Philly on the first and third Mondays of each month. On Friday, November 15, Schachter and his band will play at Bucks County Community College. For more info, check out www.bucks.edu/jazz .)
“We’ve become very intimate with each other, and that’s important for any kind of musical evolution to occur,” he says. “The record is a document of where we’ve arrived after four years of playing together.
“I like to think this album is better and stronger in terms of what I write and want to say,” he adds. “The band has grown together. We definitely have accomplished a lot in the last few years and I think it’s obvious when you hear the new recording.” The sextet album, on the other hand, is more structured, Schachter says.
“When you go into the studio you only have a certain amount of time to work, so you have to go in with an agenda,” he says. “I went into that with charts and arrangements, so the pieces are arranged much more thoroughly. It’s definitely a different sound from the trio record.”
Both discs are comprised mostly of Schachter’s own tunes. Listening to his incendiary, muscular sax—Coltrane is an acknowledged influence—it’s easy to forget that he’s also a formidable writer who several years ago scored a $50,000 Pew Charitable Trusts composition grant.
When he’s not composing or playing, Schachter is busy teaching students at Temple University’s Boyer College of Music to do the same. And—oh yeah—running his record label.
“Starting my own label was simply a matter of necessity,” Schachter says. “I don’t have a lot of business aptitude, but it’s necessary to document your music, and the only way you do that is by releasing recordings.
“If your music is of the sort that’s not easily classifiable, it’s not easy to get an established label interested, because of the financial risk. So I just formed a label, learning as I went” —about everything from CD bar codes and licensing fees to album graphics, he says.
Schachter grew up in South Jersey, the son of jazz-loving parents who frequently took him to concerts in Philly. He took up the clarinet in grade school, then switched to sax as a teen before heading to the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory.
After college he returned home to Philly where he played the odd gig and worked, for a time, in his father’s insurance business. But Schachter knew music was his calling. “Most musicians are oddballs in that sense—I knew by age 14 I wanted to be playing music my whole life.”
However, Schachter wasn’t content just to play his horn. He knew he wanted to compose and to lead his own group—an ambitious plan for a young musician with few contacts and no record deal.
“I have great respect for the kind of artistry that it takes to be a sideman,” Schachter says. “But it’s very different to lead your own group. There’s a certain amount of stubbornness that leads to this decision. You want to do things your way. When we look at the musicians who have inspired us so much, it’s been those who have persevered in trying to communicate their own musical vision.
“I feel as if I have that vision,” he adds. “So I might as well do whatever it takes—viable or not— to try to communicate that.”
As for being snapped up by the likes of Blue Note or Verve, Schachter says he wouldn’t mind—running his own label isn’t easy.
“But I’m not whining,” he says. “I made the choice to do this. I just want my own niche and the freedom to continue doing what I do.”