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Travis Sullivan: This Cat Plays the Sax

R.J. DeLuke By

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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."

Sullivan also has a project called the Casual Sextet, which has a rotating cast of members. "We gig every once in a while. I write more extended compositions for that group. I have another group called the Identity Crises, which has been going for about three years now. We're starting to get a little bit of momentum. That's more of a pop/jazz/fusion type of project. ... That was the other stuff I was listening to when I was growing up. I listened to a lot of popular music. I still have a deep love for that music. And a lot of prog rock." He notes, "There are a lot of different avenues I have for expression. I consider myself very lucky in that sense. It's a matter of finding places to play, which I find challenging at times."

Another band is CSP, which he leads with singer Kit Calvosa. Sullivan plays piano in that setting. "I enjoy that a lot too, being able to play with some great musicians and play that instrument as well, in a different context and different style than I usually find myself in. ... We [Sullivan and Calvosa] have been co-writing songs for a couple of years now," he says, but adds, "Really, the past couple of years for me have been taking the ship of my music career and trying to shift it; trying to figure out what the next direction is."

The 9/11 project is called the Pilgrimage project, supplemented by a grant from New York State. It came about via a book of photographs Sullivan and his girlfriend came across in 2007 at a bookstore in Brooklyn. "It was a book of about 70 black-and- white photos of people looking at Ground Zero. This photographer called Kevin Bubriski had gone down there in the months following [the collapse of the World Trade Center] and taken photos capturing people's expressions, just looking at the disaster. I had this real visceral reaction to it. It put me back in that moment where I was one of those people. I went down there back in November [2001], when you could see the towers still partially standing. It was a very deep emotional reaction."

His girlfriend noted that the 10th anniversary would be coming up and that Sullivan should write music to accompany the photos. Sullivan loved the idea. He contacted the photographer, who was also enthused.

"I really want to do this thing right: get the right musicians for it, pay them well. Just do it right, so it will be a really nice tribute in memory of the 10th anniversary of that," says Sullivan. "The plan is to debut it the week of 9/11. That's when I'd really like the first performance to be. I don't have a venue set yet. I'm kind of holding back and waiting to see what the money situation is going to be. If the money's there, I might even try to do something at a less-than-traditional performance space. I'm not sure what it would be."

In the meantime, Sullivan, like many Big Apple musicians, is hustling for gigs, getting outside work when he can, teaching some students. He's also pushing more sideman gigs, of which he didn't get many because of the perception he was more of a big band guy. "But I've been trying to get out there a little more—play other people's music. I am really interested in that." Posi-Tone is already talking about doing another album with Sullivan, he says, and a new Bjorkestra album, "Live at the Jazz Standard," is likely to be released later this year.

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