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Travis Sullivan: This Cat Plays the Sax

R.J. DeLuke By

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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."

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