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Take Five From Aaron Irwin

Take Five From Aaron Irwin

Courtesy Aleks Karjal

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Meet Aaron Irwin

Critically acclaimed saxophonist, multi-woodwind player, and composer Aaron Irwin is a compelling voice of his generation. Known as a "lyrical alto saxophonist and a compelling original composer" (The New Yorker), Irwin is a sought-after commodity in the New York jazz scene. Aaron Irwin celebrates his latest project: (After) (Adhyâropa Records, 2024). His ninth album, it is a collection of works inspired by poetry as interactions between sound and verse weave together melancholy, effervescence, and at times, anxiety sparked by chaos. Creating a collective musical voice that is direct, honest, and unique, composer, saxophonist, and clarinetist Aaron Irwin is joined by Mike Baggetta (guitar), and Jeff Hirshfield (drums). Irwin's longstanding interest in reading and understanding poetry was given room to breathe during the pandemic. He credits his teachers and classmates (Brooklyn Poets, Gotham Writers) with providing a much-needed outlet.

Instruments:

I play all manner of saxophones, flutes, and clarinets.

Teachers and/or influences?

I began studying piano when I was 5 years old and switched to the alto saxophone in the 4th grade. Over the years, I have studied with so many people to whom I feel I owe a great debt to, including my parents who were very supportive and critical to paying for lessons as a kid. Teaching others is one small way that I can repay their patience and kindness. Even though some of my former teachers have passed, I find that they are with me when I am teaching others. Some of the many wonderful teachers I have had the pleasure to learn from over the years include: Joann Holmes, Kenneth Stillwell, Christopher Kelton, Jim Culbertson, Steve Shepper, Perry Rask, Susan Cook, Mark Colby, Alan Swain, Emily Marlow, Keith Javors, Gary Keller, Whit Sidner, Andrew Sterman, Rich Perry, Chris Cheek, Arne Running, Ed Schultz, Alex Sopp, and Pascal Archer.

Your sound and approach to music.

Sound is perhaps the most personal of things for a musician. I heard Joe Lovano once talk about how your sound is your entire way of approaching music, which is something I love to think about. To work on developing your sound is to work on who you are, and vice versa. Your sound will evolve with the ear, the ear evolves with the mind, and the mind evolves through experience as a player and as a person. As you grow, so too will your sound, becoming more interesting, more unique, more nuanced, more you, and hopefully more open, honest, and giving.

Your teaching approach

I have been teaching for over twenty years and have grown to really love the challenges and rewards. I am currently on faculty at the Packer Collegiate School in Brooklyn. I also recently served on the faculty at Towson University for five years. Helping people unlock beauty and truth in music is a wonderful thing at any age. Teaching is a discovery we do together, where we look for ways to move forward towards greater expression while building technique and fundamentals along the way.(Also perhaps, we might simply work out how to get a sound out of the instrument without squeaking!) Working to help people at any age is, for me, a somewhat sacred thing. It's an interesting balance of when to provide more information and when to hold back to let the student make discoveries on their own. It also has the added benefit of realizing new ways of problem solving which leads both the teacher and the student to a fuller understanding of the whole.

Your dream band

I would love to go back in time to play with any of the myriad of legends throughout jazz history. At the current moment though, I am most interested in bands that exist for the project I am working on. There is simply an embarrassment of riches in New York in regard to the amount and quality of great musicians and I feel very lucky to be surrounded by so many inspiring artists who are willing to collaborate with me. As a result, I find myself writing specifically for the members of each ensemble. Writing for a band is a rewarding learning process. For me, it begins by first listening to how the musicians interpret the music as written and then deciding how to refine and shape the music collaboratively to achieve something worth developing. Working with the same people in a band helps build trust and establishes comfort for the musicians to make the music their own. Of course, this is nothing new; Miles figured this out a long time ago.

Favorite venue

There is a terrific place in the neighborhood of Lefferts Gardens located in Brooklyn, NY called The Owl Music Parlor. It is intimate, selectively curated, and one of my favorite places to listen to music as well as to perform. Another place that is very special and meaningful for me is IBeam Brooklyn which is a small and simple listening room in Gowanus that is maintained and curated by the great trombone player Brian Drye. It hosts a wide range of very interesting music nearly every night of the week and is completely artist-run and operated.

Your favorite recording in your discography and why?

I am really proud of my most recent release on Adhyâropa Records called (after) that features guitarist Mike Baggetta and Jeff Hirshfield on the drums. The title of this album refers to the practice of writing poetry in conversation with another existing poem. The compositions for this album are an attempt at a type of conversation between the two artistic mediums. Poetry and music have so many similarities, to the extent that at one point in history, there wasn't a distinction between the two. The similarities in the way in which we use language to organize and communicate thought and how we organize music to convey meaning and thought are quite striking. Although I have always been a casual reader of poetry, a few years ago I began taking poetry more seriously. Studying the mechanics of meter and form allowed me to meet a wonderful teacher, now friend, Josh Mehigan. He helped me gain a fuller understanding of how language is used rhetorically and structurally in poetry. One of the pieces on the album incorporates his wonderful poem, "The Hill."

What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically?

The self-deprecating Midwesterner in me doesn't think that what I am doing is important to anyone else but myself but I can say that there is an idea that continues to be of guidance for me: the idea that the emotional response of music should be felt by the listener and less concerned with the performer's experience. That is to say that I try to take into account what the listener might take away from my music: what's in it for them? If I hear myself being clever or "showy" for its own sake, I get bummed out as this is a way of gratifying myself and not being true to the music. Of course, this means that I am bummed out most of the time, but occasionally, I will find moments of music that I think are meaningful and genuine to the listener, which is encouraging to me. A good example of what I am talking about is Coltrane's Ballads (Impulse!, 1963) record where he strips away all the material which is usually associated with his playing and plays something excitingly unvarnished. There are many examples like this to be found, but this is one that immediately comes to mind.

What are some of the essential requirements to keep jazz alive and growing?

In an interview with Bill Evans in 1966, he discusses how jazz is not so much a style of music but a way of approaching music. He describes it as a way of making one minute's music in one minute's time, which differs from classical music where it could potentially take three months to make one minute of music. I think that, in an absolute sense, jazz music and this way of approaching music-making is here to stay. That doesn't necessarily mean that the style of what we might know or think of as jazz will stay the same, but the concept of spontaneous creation of music in real-time is healthy, alive, and exciting.

What is in the near future?

A little over a year ago, I began a YouTube channel called "Thanks for Dropping By" in which I interview musicians and artists in which we discuss their artistic process and journey. It has been a very rewarding and fulfilling thing for me to do and I would love to spread the word. Please check it out if you have a second.

Along with the new album of music coming out in May, I also have a tour of the Northwest and Midwest lined up, where we will be playing at the following venues (see comments section below). If you are reading this, I would love to see you there!

What song would you like played at your funeral?

I guess it doesn't hurt to plan ahead, so I am going to go out on a limb and curate a set list if that is allowed;

"Some Other Time" by Bill Evans w/ Tony Bennett



"This Is All I Ask" by the Joe Lovano Quartets



"Limbo Jazz" by Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins



Wine and cocktails will be served after the service. Don't forget to tip your bartender.

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