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Travis Sullivan: This Cat Plays the Sax

R.J. DeLuke By

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Travis Sullivan composes and arranges with a fine flair. For about the last six years, he's proven himself a strong leader of a large band, running the Bjorkestra, an acclaimed unit that plays slick, intricate and sometimes burning jazz versions of songs by popular Icelandic singer/songwriter Bjork.

It's a band that's an audience pleaser and one that musicians like to play in. In Milan, Italy, in December, trumpeter Dave Douglas was the guest soloist. "That's a really fun group," says Lauren Sevian, who has played baritone sax in the group (a chair she also holds in the Mingus Big Band). "The music is so cool—Bjork music for big band. It's unbelievable. Travis Sullivan does a great job. Most of the arrangements are his. The musicians are all so incredible."

Sullivan also working on special music to commemorate the upcoming 10th anniversary of the 9/11 World Trade Center tragedy in New York City.

So, if you ask some people, he's a big band leader who's adept in that arena. And they're right, sort of. If you ask Sullivan, he's an alto saxophonist who enjoys the challenge and adventurous interplay of small groups, and loves to improvise on his on his axe. His latest recording, New Directions, released in May, 2011 on Posi-Tone, attests to that. It's a quartet that exhibits an alto player of strength, dexterity and imagination; it burns with a sympathetic and cooking rhythm section. It may come as a surprise to people who followed Sullivan's work since coming out of the Manhattan School of Music. But it probably shouldn't be. This cat is a player.

"It was time to start focusing on my own music and playing. That's where my heart first and foremost lies," he says, eagerly looking forward to the CD release. The title sums up those feelings and the fact that he'd like to focus more on his playing. "I definitely wanted to sort of make a statement about that. It's a new direction based on events of the last six or seven years."

"I consider myself, first and foremost, an improviser—a composer, second," explains Sullivan. "One of my role models is someone like Wayne Shorter, where the composition and the improvisation try to integrate themselves into one whole. But when I created the Bjorkestra, it was always with the intention of creating a context for improvisation with her music, within a big band context. In theory, that's great. It works. But I'm also a very democratic bandleader. When we perform, I try to spread the wealth very evenly in terms of solos. It makes it more accessible for an audience to hear over the course of an evening. Several horn players play, the different personalities and everything, rather than just one main soloist. The consequence is that I would only get to blow maybe one, possibly two, solos a night."

The Bjork book is also primarily modal, so chord changes and similar attributes were not usually employed. "The improvisation side of things wasn't always necessarily that challenging for me, in terms of what I practice, what I've studied and everything. So there was a part of my artistic expression that was put aside for the sake of performing this music," says Sullivan.

"Where I draw most of my inspiration from is from jazz, and what I practice is definitely jazz. I transcribe a lot of artists, study the work of a lot of artists that are considered jazz artists. So I would like to think of myself as being a jazz guy. I think that with the Bjorkestra, it was questionable for a lot of people whether this music can really be considered jazz or not. I feel like it is. Jazz, for me, is taking and interpreting the best music of what's going on right now—Bjork was an example of that—and making it one's own: reinterpreting it, contextualizing it for improvisation. I really consider myself an improviser. That's an integral part of jazz."

Sullivan is joined on the record by Mike Eckroth on piano, Marco Panascia on bass and Brian Fishler on drums. The tunes, eight of ten originals, have different feels, but are all in the jazz realm. They find Sullivan with expressive swagger at times, and at other times with a more smooth, peaceful, but probing mode. Everyone in the rhythm section is on top of things, supportive, creative, and tight. "Tuneology" is the closest to hard bop, and the band gives a fine accounting on that front. "Autumn in New Hampshire" (Sullivan hails from there) is a ballad that shows how Sullivan can wring emotion from a nice melody.

He wrote the music for the record with a small group in mind, and some of the writing goes back several years. "The oldest one was written about 10 years ago," Sullivan says. "I was always writing when I was leading the big band, but having the intention to play it with a smaller ensemble. I'm very pleased with the way it came out. We did it all in one eight-hour session. ... There are always things about myself as a player that I would like to do better. But I feel like the spirit and the energy is there. It comes across really well, and everybody plays really well on the record."

Spirit and energy are things that come across in Sullivan's jazz. But as a kid growing up in the 1980s in New Hampshire, he didn't hear a lot of jazz. He was playing sax from the age of 10, and piano at 12, and it was quirky events in high school that led to a jazz enlightenment—but not the usual path. A friend in high school, a fellow saxophonist, had a collection of records, but it wasn't the mainstream type of jazz that most people cut their teeth on. This friend had "all these avant-garde things—late Coltrane and stuff. We listened to that stuff, like Coltrane "Jupiter Variations." We had no idea what was going on. We just thought it was kind of trippy and cool. ... I got into jazz backwards. When I was in high school, I was listening to Albert Ayler, Coltrane, Dolphy."

He also had an English teacher who started bringing him albums to check out. In that bunch was Pharoah Sanders and Art Ensemble Of Chicago. "Then, one day he said he just got Sketches of Spain on CD. It blew his mind because he could hear everything. He started getting rid of his LP collection. He let me go through them and buy them for one dollar each. That's what happened. I ended up buying about 30 albums from him. All this avant-garde jazz. ... I got into (jazz) backwards."

When Sullivan went off to college, he wasn't majoring in music. He studied biochemistry. But the music department had a couple of big bands, and he played in one. "I played in the second big band my freshman year. Then I played in the top band my last three years there and ended up playing lead alto, which was great," he recalls. "That exposed me to something."

Trumpeter Taylor Haskins was a classmate, and trumpeter Dave Balou was getting his master's degree there at the time. But for Sullivan, "I was interested in a totally different set of music. ... Everybody there wanted to play straight- ahead stuff. I was a one of the avant-garde outcasts. I was interested in playing free jazz and free improvised music." However, after exposure to more mainstream stuff— Clark Terry was an adjunct professor there, and there would be visits by people like Marshal Royal, Snooky Young, Al Grey, Milt Hinton and Frank Wess, Sullivan started going back to examine the music of Louis Armstrong, Lester Young and others.

By his junior year, Sullivan knew he wanted to pursue a life in music. He finished his degree and took a few years off, but continued studying music with George Garzone. That relationship lasted about three years, and it was Garzone who urged Sullivan to go to New York. Sullivan got into Manhattan School of Music, earned his master's degree there and has been in New York ever since.

"When I got [to New York], I was blown away by the level of everybody there, as well as the city in general. I was going out a lot and hearing a lot of music. I played a few gigs here and there. After I graduated, I was doing a lot of quartet, quintet stuff that I was booking on my own." In 1999, just after leaving the Manhattan School, he did his first recording with a quartet called As We Speak, with Rez Abbasi on guitar and Ari Hoenig on drums.

By 2001, playing opportunities thinned out and he says he was "starting to get a little bored with the challenges of not making a lot of money. Doing the small group stuff ... I was getting a little bit confused about how it was proceeding, how I was moving forward with the music. Then I started getting into the music of Bjork and started writing those arrangements. That evolved into forming the big band.

"The Bjorkestra started unfolding in a very magical way. From my perspective, it seemed to just have this energy behind it—sort of like a flower unfolding. I didn't really try to have any control or expectations. So that's what I'm trying to do now with these other projects: put them out to the world and see what happens."

The Bjorkestra, even as its popularity grew, never got a huge amount of gigs. But to keep it moving, Sullivan would sometimes break it into a seven-piece group. "It gives me more opportunity to solo and really be out front as a saxophonist. That's another thing too. I think a lot of my colleagues really forgot that's what I was," he says with a touch of humor. "A saxophonist first, not a big band arranger. A lot of my friends and colleagues in that band were people that I worked with. [They were] moving ahead with their solo careers. I'd look at that and say, 'That's really what I want more of.' The difficulty with that is that it's definitely the road way more traveled. I think it's a little more challenging too [in a small combo] to stand out above the rest."


Travis Sullivan's Bjorkestra in Performance

So Sullivan is working with smaller groups, not just the quartet he recorded with, though he hopes to tour later this year in support of the CD. "Small groups are easier to work with," he says. With the Bjorkestra, "I spend so much time contracting musicians, rehearsing, dealing with all different personalities ... I want to make things a little bit easier on myself."
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